Tag: Aristotle

Dream on my beautiful dog

Science shows that animals, including dogs, do dream!

I wanted to republish a recent and serious article written by George Monbiot but couldn’t bear to push back against the wonderful video of yesterday. Those loving ripples are still spreading across my consciousness and, I’m sure, that’s the same for you.

Consciousness, sleep, and dreaming are fascinating states of the mind. Previously thought exclusively the states of human minds. But not so!


Do Animals Dream?

By: Care2 Causes Editors October 22, 2017

About Care2 Follow Care2 at @care2

Written by Sy Montgomery, coauthor of Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

The electric eel exhibit at the New England Aquarium has a feature that makes it a favorite. Whenever the eel is hunting or stunning prey, the charge powers a voltmeter above his tank. It lights up when the eel is using his electricity, and allows you to see the invisible—like magic.

One day I saw another magical thing happen in the tank. Thanks to the voltmeter, I was able to watch the eel dream.

It happened when I was standing in front of the exhibit with Scott Dowd, the lead aquarist for the freshwater gallery, watching the eel resting motionless at the bottom of the tank. “I think he’s asleep,” I said to my companion.

“Yes, that eel is catching some serious z’s,” he agreed.

Being hard-core fish enthusiasts, we continued to watch transfixed while the electric eel slept. And that’s when it happened: A big flash shot across the voltmeter display—and another and another.

Electric eels hunt while swimming forward, wagging their heads to and fro, sending out electric signals that bounce back to them, sort of like a dolphin’s echolocation. But he was still motionless. So what was the flash for?

“I thought the eel was asleep!” I said to Dowd.

“He is asleep,” he replied.

We realized at once what we were almost surely witnessing. The electric eel was dreaming.

“It would appear that not only do men dream,” Aristotle wrote in History of Animals, “but horses also, and dogs, and oxen; aye, and sheep and goats. . . .”

It was obvious: Like most of us, Aristotle had watched sleeping dogs twitch their ears, paddle their paws, and bark in their sleep. Surely other animals dreamed as well.

But since Aristotle’s day, more “modern” thinkers denied that animals could dream. Complex and mysterious, dreams were considered the exclusive province of so-called higher minds.

As brain research advanced, however, researchers were forced to concede that Aristotle was right. Animals do dream.

And now we are even able to glimpse what they dream about.

Since the 1960s scientists have understood that our dreams happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of the sleep cycle. During this time our muscles are normally paralyzed by the pons of the brain stem, so that we don’t act out our dreams. In 1965 researchers removed the pons from the brain stems of cats.* They discovered the cats would get up and walk around, move the head as if to follow prey, and pounce as if on invisible mice—all
while asleep.

By 2007 we would get an even more vivid picture of animals’ dreams. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists Matthew Wilson and graduate student Kenway Louie recorded the activity of rats’ brains while the animals were running a maze. Neurons fire in distinct patterns while a rat in a maze performs particular tasks. The researchers repeatedly saw the exact same patterns reproduced while the rats slept—and they saw this so clearly they could tell what point in the maze the rat was dreaming about and whether an individual rat was running or walking in his dreams.

The rats’ dreams arose from the hippocampus, the same area in the brain that seems to drive humans’ dreams. It’s an area known to record and store memories, and that supports the notion that one important function of dreams is to help us remember what we have learned. Of course, it’s important to a lab rat to remember the right way to run a maze.

So if rats dream of running mazes, what do birds dream about? Singing.

University of Chicago professor Daniel Margoliash conducted experiments on zebra finches. Like most birds, zebra finches aren’t born knowing their songs; they learn them, and young birds spend much of their days learning and rehearsing the song of their species. While awake, neurons in the forebrain known as the robustus archistrialis fire when the bird sings particular notes. The researcher was able to determine the individual notes based on the firing pattern of the neurons. While the birds were asleep, their neurons fired in the same order—as if they were singing in their dreams.

Much less work has been done on fish than on mammals and birds. No one has found REM sleep in fish—yet. But that does not mean they don’t dream. Interestingly, no one has discovered REM sleep in whales, either. But whales almost surely dream. They are long-lived, social animals with very big brains much like our own, and for whom long-term memory consolidation is crucial.

And if you were looking for rapid eye movement in sleeping owls, you’d never see it—because owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets. That’s why they need to turn their heads around, Exorcist-style. Yet owls’ brain waves show they dream, too.

Fish do sleep, however—that much is well known. It’s been carefully documented that if zebra fish are deprived of sleep (because pesky researchers keep waking them up), they have trouble swimming the next day—just as a person would have trouble concentrating after a dreamless night.

What might an electric eel dream about? The voltmeter at the New England Aquarium showed us the answer: hunting and shocking prey.

This excerpt is from Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2017) and is printed with permission from the publisher.

*Care2 stands firmly against animal testing and believes it to be a cruel and unnecessary practice for which there are viable alternatives, such as computer modeling.


A young Pharaoh asleep, and dreaming?? September, 2003.

The book! Part Four: Finding happiness.

Aristotle is reputed to have said, “Happiness depends on ourselves.

For someone born nearly 2,400 years ago, at the time of penning this book, Aristotle’s (384 to 322 BCE) words of wisdom resonate very much with these modern times. Even granting the fact that Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and a scientist, it still has me in awe of the man. Consider, when one thinks about Aristotle’s reflections on mankind so long ago and finds, some 2,400 years later, that in a sense, in a very real sense, nothing much about the aspect of our happiness is new. Certainly when it comes to the behaviours of homo sapiens!

To underpin that last observation, that seeking happiness still fascinates us, just a few days ago (November 2104) I read an item on the BBC website reporting that a Google engineer, Chade-Meng Tan, “claims he has the secret to a contented, stress-free life.” The BBC reporter, David G Allan, author of the article, went on to write, “Deep inside the global tech behemoth Google sits an engineer with an unusual job description: to make people happier and the world more peaceful.

From Aristotle to Google – Talk about plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Nevertheless, if the source of our happiness is something that has been known for thousands of years, why do we have the sense that happiness is elusive, (I use the word ‘we’ in the broad sense.), why the reason that happiness seems as far away from the common, everyday experience as the white, snowy peak of a magnificent mountain shining out from a dark, blue sky?

How can we understand more about happiness; whether or not it is, indeed, elusive?

Well there’s only one place to start looking for the answer to that question in these modern times and that’s a Google search! Wow! No shortage of places to go looking: that search for the word ‘happiness’ produced the response – About 50,000,000 results (0.15 seconds)! And a bonus: I laughed out aloud when I saw that figure.

50 million results! Happiness doesn’t appears to be that elusive after all!

Let’s come at the question of happiness from a different angle. What about happiness from the perspective of good mental health?

The leading mental health charity in the UK is the organisation MIND. Their website, not surprisingly, poses the question: What do we mean by good mental health? Then offers the response: “Good mental health isn’t something you have, but something you do. To be mentally healthy you must value and accept yourself.

See there’s the prescience of Aristotle again!

MIND continues the response to the question by underlining how we should “… care about yourself and you care for yourself. …. love yourself, not hate yourself. …. look after your physical health”, reminding us all to “eat well, sleep well, exercise and enjoy yourself.”

Gretchen Rubin, an expert on the topic of happiness and the author of several books on this aspect of us humans, has researched happiness for many years. Her conclusions are the following: that happiness is found in the enjoyment of ordinary things, in the everyday and in cherishing the small things in our lives.

There’s a distinct theme appearing here. All the way from Aristotle: That whether or not I am happy comes down to one person and one person alone: me! Happiness is about my response to my world; my world around me.

It doesn’t take much to see the incredible importance of being good to oneself. That finding happiness is firmly on the same page as self-compassion.

That is reinforced by Ruth Nina Welsh, a freelance writer specialising in lifestyle, wellbeing and self-help, and a former counsellor and coach (and, notwithstanding, an erstwhile musician). Ruth, on her website Be Your Own Counsellor and Coach, reminds us to, “see yourself as being a valuable person in your own right.” Then later, adding: “If you value yourself, you don’t expect people to reject you. You aren’t frightened of other people. You can be open, and so you enjoy good relationships.

Conclusion: It is totally clear that how we see ourselves is central to every decision we make. People who value and accept themselves, the essence of self-happiness, cope with life in ways that are just not available to people who are not happy with who they are.

That strikes me that being happy with ourself should be the first thing we should say to ourselves in the morning, and the last thing we should think about as we drop off to sleep.

Thus having spent a few paragraphs looking at happiness in its own right, how do we bring happiness into the central proposition of this section of the book: Of change in thoughts and deeds? How can happiness be a positive tool for change?

To put into context the need for change in our thoughts and deeds, let’s look back over our shoulders at the past fifty years or more and realise that despite the relentless growth in incomes, across the vast majority of countries, we are no happier than we were those five decades ago. Indeed, some might argue that we are much less happy. Certainly, in this same period of fifty years, we have seen an increase in wider social issues, including a very worrying rise in anxiety and depression in our young people.

If the premise that change is essential, that there is a growing motivation to turn away from where we, as in mankind, seem to be heading, and seek more peaceful and harmonious times, then finding happiness, as with faith in goodness, is an important ingredient but on its own does not deliver change.

For more years than I care to remember, BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting a ten-minute programme: A Point of View; usually on a Friday evening if my memory serves me well. Back in 2013, writer and broadcaster, Al Kennedy, presented A Point of View on the theme of Why embracing change is the key to happiness. The ideas behind that programme were also published on the BBC News Magazine website: A Point of View: Why embracing change is the key to happiness. Al Kennedy proposing that, “Human happiness may rely on our ability to conquer a natural fear of upsetting the status quo.

Al Kennedy touched on a familiar aspect of change, “If you’re like me, you won’t want to change. Even if things aren’t wonderful, but are familiar, I would rather stay with what I know. Why meddle with something for which there is a Latin, and therefore authoritative, term: the status quo.

Thus, Al reminds us, that seeing happiness as a key to change, may be putting it in the wrong order. We have to welcome change, have it as a fundamental part of who we are and trust that this is the path to happiness. Back to Al Kennedy: “And every analysis of what makes lucky and happy people lucky and happy demonstrates they adapt fast and well to new situations and people, and so are defended by complex social circles and acclimatised to change.

That BBC article concludes, again with Al Kennedy’s words: “Approaching the changing reality of reality with sensible flexibility is the best strategy for happiness. I don’t believe it, but it’s true. And if I can change my mind, I can change anything else I need to.

Notions of Rome not being built in a single day come to mind. Or that other one about even the longest journey starting out with a single step.

Silly old me! Still looking for more sayings to crystallise the essence of happiness and the best one is right under my nose. The one that opened this chapter. From the wise Aristotle: “Happiness depends on ourselves.

1296 words Copyright 2014: Paul Handover

Integrity and democracy.

“Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Thus said Aristotle.

Here’s another quote from more recent times.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

So said President Dwight D. Eisenhower.


Today’s post started as an ill-defined idea in my head following me reading a recent essay over on Patrice Ayme’s blog.  It was his (her?) post of the 17th July in which was written, “Representative democracy has to be destroyed as an ideal.” and later,

Meanwhile the French People would be well advised to search for a new form of government more appropriate to the modern world, and the increasing democracy we all dearly need.

One does not have to look very far for inspiration: the Confoederatio Helvetica next door, an independent, and central part of the Franks’ Francia, is enjoying a much more direct form of democracy.

that caused me to leave a comment,

I read a deeper malaise in your essay, Patrice, and that is the failure of ‘representative’ democracy in country after country around the world. In fact, it’s inspiring me to write a post over on LfD about the possibilities for truly democratic government.

that, in turn, was replied to by Patrice:

Please go ahead, Paul, and keep me informed! ;-)! And you are completely right. Representative democracy is actually oligarchic representation. Athenians had 80,000 citizens, and 80,000 legislators. France has about 1,000 times more citizens, and one half of a thousandth (1/2,000) fewer legislators. That makes the French democratic index half of a million times less than the Athenians!

Let me step back for a moment.

Over the life of this blog, I have touched on the vulnerability of human life on this planet more than once.  It’s not being at all smart to say that mankind is crapping on its own doorstep and our future is in severe doubt.  The reason I say it’s not smart is simply because millions of people almost certainly think that or something pretty damn close.

Maybe the huge divide between what ‘the man in the street’ knows makes common sense and the terrible lack of common sense shown by so many of our governments is at the root of the problem.  In other words, our representative democratic system isn’t working.

Here’s a letter from the pages of the Tampa Bay Times from just last Tuesday.

Tuesday’s letters: Our democratic system is at risk

There are thoughtful, informed people who are worried that our democratic system of government is not working and the whole enterprise is at risk. I think there is only one solution to the problem: to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.

It is foolish to think that the personalities of members of Congress change when they arrive in Washington. A worrisome number were fools, buffoons and rigidly ideological before they were elected, and there is no realistic possibility that anyone or anything can change their personalities after they are elected and while they are in office.

It is a crisis long in the making. Most students finish high school with little or no understanding of American history or the way their government works. There is no understanding of the idea of citizenship and the heavy responsibility imposed on citizens who live in a democratic republic. There has never been so much information so easily available that could allow people to make wise use of their votes. But without the perspective of education and a deep understanding that voting is everything in our system of government, it all may slip away.

Roger C. Benson, St. Petersburg

to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.

I wouldn’t argue at all with the wisdom in those words.  But I would add to it.

It’s my sense that many citizens in many countries feel that the whole business of government has got to large, too complicated, too remote and, frankly, has less to do with working “cooperatively with others and solve problems” than with feeding its own mouth.  Take voter turnout.

Graph of voter turnout percentage from 1824 to 2008.
Voter turnout in the USA; 1824 – 2008

Why such high levels of absenteeism; for want of a better description?

Let’s go back to the Athenians as Patrice mentioned.  Plenty on the web to read but this article caught my eye.

Athenian Democracy: a brief overview

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003

· Summary ·

This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Its purpose is to introduce, very briefly, the institutions of the Athenian democracy during the late 5th century BCE through the end of the radical democracy in the late 4th century. This is a companion-piece to “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” also written for the CHS’s discussion series.

· Introduction ·

The city of Athens lived under a radically democratic government from 508 until 322 BCE. Before the earlier date there was democracy to be found here and there in the government of Athens, and democratic institutions survived long after the latter date, but for those 186 years the city of Athens was self-consciously and decidedly democratic, autonomous, aggressive, and prosperous. Democracy in Athens was not limited to giving citizens the right to vote. Athens was not a republic, nor were the People governed by a representative body of legislators. In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains (for the latter, see Aeschin. 3.157).1 The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security. The system evolved over time, suffered two complete breakdowns in the 5th century, and is certainly open to criticism at many points during its history. Nevertheless, it was coherent enough during those two centuries that we can describe it, in general terms, without being too far wrong on any point. And despite its moments of imprudence, injustice, and indecision, it was an experiment remarkable enough to deserve our attention.

The early history of Athenian Democracy and its development is the subject of another article in this series. This general description of how the Athenians governed themselves will focus on the 4th century BCE, both because the democracy was most fully developed during that time and because the majority of our evidence either comes from that period, or describes the the Athenian government during that period.

Now there’s much more to read here for those so interested but I want to highlight a section from the above.  This section:

In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains. The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security.

So from 322 BCE to 2014 AD!

A few days ago, Jeannie needed to change some details regarding her US Social Security payment.  We saw that it could be done online.  As one would expect, setting up online access for Jean meant jumping through a number of security hoops.  All more or less sorted in 20 minutes.

It was clear that it would be incredibly difficult for someone to fraudulently break into her online SSA account. Think of the millions who perfectly happily manage their bank accounts online.

Ergo, there are no technical issues why every single eligible voter in the USA (and many other countries) couldn’t move towards governing themselves in a direct manner just like the Athenians. Indeed, voting in the USA at times of Presidential elections is permitted. But all that is doing is participating in a system that isn’t delivering real democracy.

We need to govern ourselves: “debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains.” Because humanity is facing some issues that are very great indeed!

Or have I missed something bloody obvious?


I opened today’s post with two quotations.  I shall close by offering another two.

“If we don’t hang together, we most assuredly will hang separately.”

Benjamin Franklin advising the original continental congress of what became the United States of America.

“A key political question today is: Do you support the well-being of the Earth and the life that the Earth supports?

From a good friend and supporter of this blog who chooses to remain anonymous.  Who then added: “This question has spiritual, natural and rational implications which frame the debate in terms of human values greater than money.”

Instinctive behaviours.

We see instinct as common across all species including man, so why is so little known about it.

There was an item seen on the BBC Capital website.  It was an article about intuition:

Trusting your gut: Smart management or a fool’s errand?

by Eric Barton*

Photographer Mindy Véissid woke up one winter morning in 2010 with a simple idea: dogs running in the snow.

“That’s all I had,” she recalled.

The Manhattan resident followed her gut and went across town to Central Park. There, Véissid found three dogs jumping around in a couple of inches of new snow covering the famed park’s Great Lawn. She plopped down in the field and waited. That’s when the dogs headed right for her. She snapped off a shot just before they barrelled over her.

The picture she took that morning, of happy-looking pups charging through a cloud of snow with the New York City skyline behind them, has become one of Véissid’s calling cards, maybe her most recognisable shot. It’s a photo she would have missed if she had not trusted her gut.

“What I realised is that if I follow my heart, if I follow my feelings, I get good photographs,” Véissid said. “We try to control everything in our lives, and sometimes you have to let go.”

It wasn’t long ago that decision-by-intuition would have been regarded as little more than magical thinking or a try at luck. But research has changed that and intuition has been embraced as a key component to business decision making.

There is, however, an inherent danger to it, and blindly following your gut can be worse than ignoring it altogether. For managers, that means learning how to trust your own instincts and encouraging employees to do the same. But it also means learning to recognise when careful planning trumps sudden inspiration.

Perhaps the thing that most changed the way businesses think about inspiration was a 2008 study co-authored by Gerard Hodgkinson, professor at Leeds University Business School in the United Kingdom. Hodgkinson found that intuition can be beneficial in specific circumstances. First, it’s best to rely on a gut feeling when you need to make a quick decision. Second, and this is the important part, trust your intuition only when you have extensive knowledge on the subject. In other words, the best intuition is pulled from a well of deep knowledge and expertise.

“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.”

(The rest of the story may be read here.)

Wrong to republish the whole piece, however I do want to republish the closing paragraphs as they are so relevant to today’s post.

Western cultures began to embrace intuition only recently, Pigliucci said, while research suggests Southeast Asian countries have long given credit to gut feelings being a good guide to decision making. Eastern managers, for instance, are more likely to rely on hunches and give them credit for successes afterward.

After photographer Véissid learned to rely on her gut feelings, she wanted to teach others how to do it. Her class, the Art of Intuitive Photography, teaches the photography basics, but her instruction is more about following hunches.

“You can get a good photograph and it will be technically correct,” she said. “But if you follow your heart, you can take photos that can be wonderful.”

Follow BBC Capital on Twitter @BBC_Capital or follow us and join the conversation about this or any other Capital story on Facebook: BBC Capital on Facebook.


* Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

To my mind, what Eric Barton has written about is not instinctive.  That is if one believes that instinct is something that is ‘hard-wired’, so to speak, into our psyche at birth, a function of our genetic heritage.

When one reflects on the start of life, ergo for all warm-blooded species that are the result of a successful copulation between the two genders of that species, then one realises that there is little functioning at birth beyond those bodily functions vital to that new life.

But if we mean by instinctive those behaviours that are subconsciously acted out while the mind is engaged on other mental processes, then that’s different.

Read that last opening paragraph again [my emphasis]:

“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.

Think of when we drive a car how much of what we are doing in the ‘hand-eye’ department is being managed by our subconscious brain.  Think about the way we use a language, especially the language of our birth country.  One will immediately recognise that the brain is on auto-pilot.  Yet we were born unable to speak, or to drive a car!

Coincidentally, over at Patrice Ayme’s blog there was a post published yesterday on the same theme.  It was called Instinct is Fast Learning.  Here’s an extract:




Abstract: “Innate Knowledge” is a stupid idea. The truth is the exact opposite: KNOWLEDGE IS EVERYWHERE, OUT THERE.Knowledge is the opposite of innate. This insight has tremendous consequences on our entire prehension of the world.

(It will not escape the cognoscenti that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were partisans of innateness. And that believing in the superiority of inheritance is a necessary condition for racism, fascism, slavery, and hereditary plutocracy as fairness. That makes the likes of Chomsky and Dawkins self contradictory)

Subjective time slows down in smaller brains.

Fastest Wings, Fastest Brains. Anna Hummingbird California
Fastest Wings, Fastest Brains.  Anna Hummingbird California

Those wings go at 100 Hertz, four time the human perception limit.

Thus time is relative; just as light-clock time slows down in a fast reference frame, or in a heavy gravitational field, neurological timeslows down in a small neurology.

(Interestingly, the deepest reason for the slowing of time… boils down to the same in the Relativity case as in the Neurological one! It’s all about energy.)

A lot of ideas on instinct came from studying insects: insects seem to know all, without having studied anything. However, if insect time flows slowly, insects actually have time to learn.

And that’s rendered easier by having brains adapted to their environment. If they have only a few tricks to learn, and what looks like ten seconds for us is an hour for them, no wonder they learn lots. Thus slow in small explains how “instinct” works.

Hence behaviors one describes as “instinctive” are just fast studies. A lot of the silliness about “genes” is thus dispelled, and the mind comes on top.

It’s an essay that deserves the full reading.  This is how it closes:


Instinct As Fast Learning solves the nature-nurture problem. It also shows something else, even more important. It shows that the force of nature makes not just the force, but even the very geometry, of our minds.

(The construction of neuromorphology itself being forced by feedback from nature.)

The minds of sentient species, from bees to hummingbirds, are exquisitely tuned to be programmed by the (part of) nature they are made to respond to, all the way to the speed of time they need.

If we kill the environment, we kill out instruction set. The usual reason given to save the environment is that we would not want our descendants to live in a bad world. But what we see now is that a poor world gives poor minds, and that even time may go askew. Another, deeper than ever, reason to be a fanatical ecologist. Nature is not just our temple. Nature is where, and how, time itself is built, one neurological impulse at a time.


Patrice Ayme

On Monday, I have a sequel to this post.  It’s an insight into the conscious and unconscious skills that come from flying a glider, or sailplane in American speak!  Plus something that could just possibly be the key to mankind having a long-term sustainable future on this planet: The Power of Thinking.

But back to today.

You will recall that the item from the BBC website opened with photographer Mindy Véissid waking up one winter morning in 2010 with a simple idea: dogs running in the snow.  Too good not to miss for a blog called Learning from Dogs.

Mindy’s website is here and do go across there and browse.  You will quickly discover, for example:

we teach small sized group and private digital photography classes and workshops in fun locations throughout nyc, focusing on how to use your camera, how intuition can help guide you to images, and compositional improvement

So having given Mindy that small, but well-deserved, plug, I don’t feel too bad closing today with Mindy’s picture of those dogs running in the snow.

Picture by Mindy Veissid Photography
Picture by Mindy Veissid Photography

Dealing with madness!

“No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.”

So wrote Aristotle .

But it offers little comfort in response to some recent essays that I have been reading.  I closed yesterday’s essay from ‘Our unsustainable way of life‘ with the comment, “If it strikes you as utter, complete madness trust me, you are not alone.”  The madness is still coming!  Stay with me!

I have referred to George Monbiot before; most recently in a republication of his essay The Great Unmentionable.


George has a new book being published by Allen Lane today under the title of Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. I would offer you the link to the book on the Allen Lane website but at the time of writing this post that link is not functioning.  It’s certainly a book I want to read.  You may learn more here.

Anyway, some recent Monbiot essays in the UK Guardian newspaper have been setting the scene for his new book.

On the 22nd May, there was an essay published under the heading of What’s Missing from this Picture? (the link is to George Monbiot’s website).  The essay starts, thus:

Somehow almost all of us have missed the real story behind the disappearance of our wildlife.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 22nd May 2013

Even before you start reading the devastating State of Nature report, you get an inkling of where the problem lies. It’s illustrated in the opening pages with two dramatic photographs of upland Britain. They are supposed to represent the natural glories we’re losing. In neither of them (with the exception of some distant specks of scrub and leylandii in the second) is there a tree to be seen. The many square miles they cover contain nothing but grass and dead bracken. They could scarcely provide a better illustration of our uncanny ability to miss the big picture:

State of Nature - pic 1

State of Nature - pic 2

The majority of wildlife requires cover: places in which it can shelter from predators or ambush prey, places in which it can take refuge from extremes of heat and cold, or find the constant humidity that fragile roots and sensitive invertebrates require. Yet, in the very regions in which you might expect to find such cover (trees, scrub, other dense foliage) there is almost none. I’m talking about the infertile parts of Britain, in which farming is so unproductive that it survives only as a result of public money. Here, in the places commonly described as Britain’s “wildernesses”, almost nothing remains. And the “almost” has become radically smaller over the past 20 years.

Then a few paragraphs later, comes this:

The uplands of Britain are astonishingly unproductive. For example, 76% of the land in Wales is devoted to livestock farming, mostly to produce meat. But, astonishingly, by value Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports. Six thousand years of nutrient stripping and erosion have left our hills so infertile that their productivity is miniscule. Even relatively small numbers of livestock can now keep the hills denuded.

Without subsidies, almost all hill-farming would cease. That’s not something I’m calling for, but I do believe it’s time we began to challenge the system and its outcomes. Among them is a policy that’s almost comically irrational and destructive.

So what was it that came at me as utter madness?

It was this:

The major funding that farmers receive is called the single farm payment, which is money given by European taxpayers to people who own land. These people receive a certain amount (usually around £200 or £300), for every hectare they own. To receive it, they must keep the land in what is called “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition” (GAEC). It’s a term straight out of 1984.

Among the compulsory standards in the GAEC rules is “avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land”. What this means is that if farmers want their money they must stop wild plants from returning. They don’t have to produce anything: to keep animals or to grow crops there. They merely have to prevent more than a handful of trees or shrubs from surviving, which they can do by towing cutting gear over the land.

Oh, and then we learn:

The government of Northern Ireland has been fined £64 million for (among other such offences) giving subsidy money to farms whose traditional hedgerows are too wide. The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitats. The system ensures that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides, and destroy them.

Leading to the bizarre (and that’s putting it kindly) situation where:

A farmer can graze his land to the roots, run his sheep in the woods, grub up the last lone trees, poison the rivers with sheep dip and still get his money. Some of the farms close to where I lived in mid-Wales do all of those things and never have their grants stopped. But one thing he is not allowed to do is what these rules call “land abandonment”, and what I call rewilding. For no good reason, public money is used both to engineer the mass destruction of habitats through grazing and clearing, and to prevent any significant recovery.

There’s nothing I can add.  Except this.  I am collecting ideas and essays that are going to focus on the positive aspects of this ‘new world order’. I’m going to offer some examples of the power of positive change because as Rebecca Solnit wrote recently there is a case for hope!

This year of separation.

Ultimately, a message of hope.

Today’s title came from a recent chat ‘across the garden fence’ with our neighbours, Dordie and Bill.  At their request we had walked our two horses over to the fence-line between our two properties so Dordie and Bill could meet and fondle them.  The warm afternoon sunshine was beautiful and while the horses munched the newly-found grass, we grown-ups talked about this and that and generally tried to put the world to rights!

Paul with Dancer; Jean with Grace.
Paul with Dancer; Jean with Grace.

We talked about the strangeness of present times.  Not just in the USA but across the world. Bill thought 2013 would be the year of separation.  I queried what he meant by that.

Bill replied, “I sense that by the end of the year, the vast majority of people will have decided if climate change is or is not a significant issue.”  There would be few who remained neither unconcerned nor undecided.

That resonated with me and neatly put the framework to today’s post.  Stay with me while I journey to the destination that this year will be the year of hope.

I am one of many who subscribe to the online magazine Grist.  They describe themselves, thus:

Laugh now — or the planet gets it.

You know how some people make lemonade out of lemons? At Grist, we’re making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse.

It’s more fun than it sounds, trust us!

Grist has been dishing out environmental news and commentary with a wry twist since 1999 — which, to be frank, was way before most people cared about such things. Now that green is in every headline and on every store shelf (bamboo hair gel, anyone?), Grist is the one site you can count on to help you make sense of it all.

The weekly Grist digest that arrived in my in-box that same day as when we were chatting with Dordie and Bill included a number of key stories.

Here’s one that smacked me in the eye.

The 32 most alarming charts from the government’s climate change report

By Philip Bump

Just reading about the government’s massive new report outlining what climate change has in store for the U.S. is sobering. In brief: temperature spikes, drought, flooding, less snow, less permafrost. But if you really want to freak out, you should check out the graphs, charts, and maps.

Now I’m not going to republish all 32 charts but will include just these two, because the message is clear.

It’s possible that sea levels could only rise eight inches. It is also possible that they could rise over six-and-a-half feet.




Sea-level rise will affect different areas to different degrees — but note the map at lower right. On the Georgia coast, “hundred year” floods could happen annually.

OK, that first chart takes a while to absorb the full implications. The second one doesn’t!

The full range of charts is chilling.  While they refer to the USA, the messages apply to the whole world.

Then in that same Grist weekly summary was this story.

If you aren’t alarmed about climate, you aren’t paying attention

By David Roberts

There was recently another one of those (numbingly familiar) internet tizzies wherein someone trolls environmentalists for being “alarmist” and environmentalists get mad and the troll says “why are you being so defensive?” and everybody clicks, clicks, clicks.

I have no desire to dance that dismal do-si-do again. But it is worth noting that I find the notion of “alarmism” in regard to climate change almost surreal. I barely know what to make of it. So in the name of getting our bearings, let’s review a few things we know.

We know we’ve raised global average temperatures around 0.8 degrees C so far. We know that 2 degrees C is where most scientists predict catastrophic and irreversible impacts. And we know that we are currently on a trajectory that will push temperatures up 4 degrees or more by the end of the century.

David then works his way through those ‘things we know’ in a powerful manner.  Do read the full article, please!  This is his conclusion:

All this will add up to “large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems.” Given the uncertainties and long-tail risks involved, “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.” There’s a small but non-trivial chance of advanced civilization breaking down entirely.

Now ponder the fact that some scenarios show us going up to 6degrees by the end of the century, a level of devastation we have not studied and barely know how to conceive. Ponder the fact that somewhere along the line, though we don’t know exactly where, enough self-reinforcing feedback loops will be running to make climate change unstoppable and irreversible for centuries to come. That would mean handing our grandchildren and their grandchildren not only a burned, chaotic, denuded world, but a world that is inexorably more inhospitable with every passing decade.

Take all that in, sit with it for a while, and then tell me what it could mean to be an “alarmist” in this context. What level of alarm is adequate?

So am I stark staring mad for having hope in my mind?  Stay with me for just a little longer.  Then form your own judgment.

Recall the post that I published on Tuesday hitting out at the British newspaper The Daily Mail.  Towards the end of that post, in discussing the recently released American National Climate Assessment, I wrote this:

That’s why this report is to be encouraged, nay embraced.  Of all the nations in the world, the one that should be setting the lead is the United States of America.  As the banner on that globalchange.gov website proclaims: Thirteen Agencies, One Vision: Empower the Nation with Global Change Science

So go and read the report.  For your sake and all our sakes.

Because the more informed you and I are, the better the chances of real political leadership taking place in this fine nation.

Now with that in mind let’s go to the final Grist article.

A new grand strategy for the U.S., built around sustainability

By David Roberts

Let’s just accept it: America’s current political and economic systems are incapable of responding adequately to climate change. As things stand, reducing carbon emissions — or more broadly, shifting to sustainability — is a kind of add-on, a second-tier consideration, bolted onto systems and institutions that were built for other purposes.

A little later, David writes:

So what would a new U.S. grand strategy built around sustainability look like? That’s the question tackled by “A New U.S. Grand Strategy,” a piece in Foreign Policy by Patrick Doherty, director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation.

It’s a hugely ambitious and wide-ranging piece, far too much to even summarize adequately here. Bookmark it. Instapaper it. Pinterest it to your iCloud, or whatever kids do these days. But let’s take a quick look.

Doherty identifies four central challenges facing the U.S.:

  • Economic inclusion: People are swarming out of poverty around the world (especially in China). Over the next 20 years, the global middle class will welcome around 3 billion new members. That’s going to put intense stress on natural, economic, and political systems that are already showing signs of strain.
  • Ecosystem depletion: Pretty sure Grist readers are familiar with this one.
  • Contained depression: Rather than a recession, the U.S. faces a “constrained depression,” with the full effects of low aggregate demand and high debt being masked by policy. No amount of fiscal or economic stimulus will revive a system that has exhausted itself.
  • Resilience deficit: Our industrial supply lines and value chains are efficient, but lack redundancy; they are brittle. Our infrastructure is old and crumbling, $2.2 trillion in the hole, and that’s just for the aging Cold War stuff, never mind building water, power, and transportation systems suited to an era of climate disruption.

“These four challenges,” Doherty says, “are the four horsemen of the coming decades.” And they are inter-dependent. They must be solved together. It’s a rough situation.

With these in mind, Doherty proposes a new grand strategic concept: “The United States must lead the global transition to sustainability.

What a vision for the United States of America.  That this Nation will be the most wonderful example of how man can learn, adapt and change.  David Roberts concludes:

Here are Doherty’s main suggestions for how to realign the U.S. economic engine:

  • Walkable communities: More and more Americans want to live in dense, walkable areas; get rid of regulations that hamper them and start building them.
  • Regenerative agriculture: Farmers can produce “up to three times the profits per acre and 30 percent higher yields during drought” with agricultural techniques that also clean water and restore soils. America must “adopt modern methods that will bring more land into cultivation, keep families on the land, and build regional food systems that keep more money circulating in local economies.”
  • Resource productivity: “Energy and resource intensity per person will have to drop dramatically.” That imperative can drive “innovation in material sciences, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and energy production, distribution, and consumption.”
  • Excess liquidity: Channel all the corporate cash that’s sitting around in funds into long-term investments in America by taxing waste and creating regional growth strategies.
  • Stranded hydrocarbon assets: Figure out how to devalue the immense amount of carbon that’s still sitting underneath the ground without unduly traumatizing the economy.

Obviously the devil is in the details on this stuff, but at a broad level, this is about as eloquent and forward-thinking as it gets. I love the idea of using sustainability in a muscular way, to revive regional economies and nurture the middle class. I recommend reading the whole thing.

I, too, recommend reading “A New U.S. Grand Strategy – Why walkable communities, sustainable economics, and multilateral diplomacy are the future of American power.” (NB: You will have to register with Foreign Policy before access to the report is possible, but it’s free.)

So, the wall-to-wall stream of information that is shouting out how quickly the planet is changing is the fuel that is going to feed the fires of hope.

Let me leave you with the most beautiful words of an ancient philosopher – Aristotle.

Hope is a waking dream.

Can modernisation be “ecological”?

Three guest posts from Martin Lack of Lack of Environment, today the concluding Part Three

Hope you have been following the previous two parts of this essay from Martin.  Part One can be read here; Part Two here.


Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 3

This is the third and final part of my mini-critique of the school of environmental thought known as Ecological Modernisation.
Newsflash: Today [Sept. 27th.] is Earth Overshoot Day for 2011. This was a genuine coincidence (i.e. I did not know this when I decided to do this 3-part story). See paragraph 2 below…

Where are we now?
In his seminal 1968 article on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin had observed that it was not possible to achieve Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” because, at the level of the individual, to do so would require food and/or energy to be used for subsistence purposes only (Hardin 1968: 1243). In 1977, William Ophuls agreed that the optimum population is not the maximum possible, which appears to imply that, if necessary, artificial limits to growth should be imposed. Furthermore, he explicitly stated that, “…this optimum level… may be as little as fifty percent of the theoretical maximum…” (Ophuls 1977: 28).

Mathis Wackernagel et al have recently provided “…evidence that human activities have exceeded the biosphere’s capacity since the 1980s. This overshoot can be expressed as the extent to which human area demand exceeds nature’s supply. Whereas humanity’s load corresponded to 70% of the biosphere’s capacity in 1961; this percentage grew to 120% by 1999.” However, the authors also pointed out that, if… “12% of the bioproductive area was set aside to protect other species; the demand line crosses the supply line in the early 1970s rather than the 1980s” (Wackernagel et al 2002: 9268-9)(emphasis mine).

In laboratory-controlled studies, the size of a population of, say, fruit flies can be shown to depend on the scarcity or abundance of food; and the presence or absence of predators. However, in 2005, Meadows et al pointed out that a growing population “…will slow and stop in a smooth accommodation with its limits… only if it receives accurate, prompt signals telling it where it is with respect to its limits, and only if it responds to those signals quickly and accurately” (Meadows et al 2005: 157).

This pursuit of the resulting “S-curve” is sometimes referred to as the demographic transition of an increasingly affluent society through three stages: (1) high birth and death rates; (2) high birth rate but low death rate; and (3) low birth and death rates. However, in a section entitled ‘Why Technology and Markets Alone Can’t Avoid Overshoot’, Meadowset al also pointed out that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously (ibid: 223).

Even though no-one seems to want to talk about population control today, neither Hardin nor Malthus was the first to raise this contentious subject because, as Philip Kreager has pointed out, this dubious honour goes to Aristotle’s treatise on Politics within which, “…population is a recurring topic, extensively discussed and integral to the overall argument…” (Kreager 2008: 599). Furthermore, according to Theodore Lianos, although Aristotle was thinking at the scale of a city rather than a country, the great philosopher recognised that there was an optimum population size, which depended on the land area controlled by the city (for food production purposes), which could be determined by, “the land-population ratio that produces enough material goods so that the citizens can live a wise and generous life, comfortable but not wasteful nor luxurious” (Lianos 2010: 3).

It has been demonstrated that dematerialisation alone cannot deal with the problem of resource depletion unless the increase in unit efficiency is greater than the increase in scale of production (i.e. something that cannot be sustainable indefinitely).

Furthermore, whereas it may be possible to partially decouple environmental degradation from economic growth, pursuit of this as a sole objective is a dangerous strategy. This is because to do so is to remain ambivalent about the existence and significance of limits to growth; indeed it is to deny that growth itself may be the problem.

In the final analysis, the only thing that will be sustainable is progression towards the steady-state economy proposed by Daly and others; combined with qualitative development instead of quantitative growth. Therefore, the only form of modernisation that could be ecological is one that places the intrinsic value of vital resources such as clean air and clean water – and the inherent value of a beautiful landscape – well above the instrumental value of money or precious metals.
Hardin, G. (1968), ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, 168, pp.1243-8.
Kreager, P. (2008), ‘Aristotle and open population thinking’, Population and Development Review 14(34), pp.599-629.
Lianos, T. (2010), ‘Aristotle’s Macroeconomic Model of the City-State’.
Meadows D, et al (2005), Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update, London: Earthscan.
Ophuls, W. (1977), Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, San Francisco: Freeman and Co..
Wackernagel, M. et al (2002), ‘Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy’,Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences [USA], 99(14), pp.9266-9271.