Tag: The Guardian newspaper

Out Of The Wreckage: A Review

This is one powerful book!

(Please note that I am letting this post run until Sunday, 15th Oct.)

For many years I have both read George Monbiot’s writings, especially those published by The Guardian newspaper, and deeply respected his insight, intelligence and analysis of the world in which we now live.

So when I heard of his latest book, published by Verso Books both sides of the ‘pond’, it was ordered immediately. It was a book I badly wanted to read. I was not disappointed.

So what is Mr. Monbiot’s message?

To answer that question let me lean on a forthcoming talk being given by him in Edinburgh in eight days time. For he is speaking at a Scottish Green Party event on October 20th.
Here’s the thrust of what is to be covered at that meeting:

What does the good life—and the good society—look like in the twenty-first century?

A toxic ideology rules the world – of extreme competition and individualism. It misrepresents human nature, destroying hope and common purpose. Only a positive vision can replace it, a new story that re-engages people in politics and lights a path to a better world.

Join us for an evening of discussion with George Monbiot as he talks about his new book: ‘Out of the wreckage: a new politics in an age of crisis‘. New findings in psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology cast human nature in a radically different light: as the supreme altruists and cooperators. George argues that we can build on these findings to create a new politics: a ‘politics of belonging’.

So what does this mean for social and environmental justice campaigning in Edinburgh? How do we create a politics of belongings here in Scotland? There will be plenty of opportunity for George Monbiot and the audience to share their insights.

Doors open: 6pm

George Monbiot will speak from 7-7.30pm and there will then be a Q&A, plus a chance buy books, mingle and browse stalls.

This event is jointly hosted by Global Justice Now and the Scottish Green party.

To my mind, this book not only addresses, full on, the madness (my word) of these present times but also offers strong, positive recommendations as to how we, as in the societies of all the major nations, can turn it around and offer a decent future for future generations. That’s why I am so strongly recommending it.

Take this extract from the review of George Monbiot’s book published by the Guardian newspaper on the 14th September this year:

For George Monbiot, neoliberalism should best be understood as a “story”, one that was conveniently on offer at precisely the moment when the previous “story” – namely Keynesianism – fell to pieces in the mid-1970s. The power of stories is overwhelming, as they are “the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals”. The particular story of neoliberalism “defines us as competitors, guided above all other impulses by the urge to get ahead of our fellows”.

Or this extract from the review published by The New Statesman:

It should be said at once that we are desperately in need of new ideas for a society and a democracy where trust in all established institutions is at a record low and even a Tory prime minister admits the country doesn’t work for everyone. Monbiot’s ideas are clear, well-reasoned and sometimes compelling. Many will mock his attempt at a “story of hope and restoration”; even some of his Guardian colleagues call him “George Moonshine”. Human beings, his critics will say, are inherently selfish and self-maximising. Give them the opportunity to freeload off others’ efforts and they will take it.

Such objections are easily dismissed. Yes, there’s a self-interested streak in all of us but, as Monbiot observes, we also have instincts for co-operation and sensitivity to others’ needs. Think of the hundreds who volunteer to run food banks and of the thousands more who donate to them. Think of those Europeans who, at great risk to themselves, sheltered Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. The altruistic instinct can be kindled in almost anybody. It is suppressed, however, in a society that rewards the selfish but penalises – and brands as “mugs” – those who are more mindful of our needs, and the planet’s. That society has led to loneliness, high levels of mental illness and increasingly discordant political discourse. Shouldn’t we at least try developing a society that does more to nurture the better angels of our nature?

Better still, settle down with a cup of tea, put your feet up for fifteen minutes and listen to this:

This book struck me as the most important book I have ever read in my lifetime. Why? Because it gets to the heart of what is happening today. But it offers even more than that. For instead of a shrug of the shoulders or eyes turned skywards from a friend when one mutters about the fact that we are living in ‘interesting times’, George Monbiot offers hope and guidance.

Take the very last two paragraphs from the final chapter of his book.

Coming Home to Ourselves

Through restoring community, renewing civic life and claiming our place in the world, we build a society in which our extraordinary nature – our altruism, empathy and deep connection – is released.

When we emerge from the age of loneliness and alienation, from an obsession with competition and extreme individualism, from the worship of image and celebrity and power and wealth, we will find a person waiting for us. It is a person better than we might have imagined, whose real character has been suppressed. It is one who lives inside us, who has been there all along.

“- our altruism, empathy and deep connection -”

I see these persons every day of my life. Via the pages of this blog.

Yes, I am referring to all of you who wander in and out of this place, who demonstrate your compassion, your love and your dedication to the dogs and all the other animals of this world.

Read this book!

Foreboding times?

Something brooding in the air!

The smoke from the forest fires in Oregon and California has been thick in the air here in Merlin for days.

As can be seen in the photograph below. The photograph is as it was captured by the camera at 7:15 am yesterday morning. No changes by me made at all. The middle tree line is at the Eastern end of our property about a 1/4 mile away.

We are fed up with the smoke and the terrible air conditions.

But what drew me to grab the camera and take the photograph was that the image had some sort of, Oh, I don’t know, some sort of end of the world feeling about it.

It also seemed a most apt image to be an introduction to the latest essay from George Monbiot. It is republished here with Mr. Monbiot’s kind permission.

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Don’t Look Now

2nd September 2017

The media avoids the subject of climate breakdown – to do otherwise is to bring the entire infrastructure of thought crashing down

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29 August 2017

It is not only Donald Trump’s government that censors the discussion of climate change; it is the entire body of polite opinion. This is why, though the links are clear and obvious, the majority of news reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution.

In 2016, the United States elected a president who believes that human-driven global warming is a hoax. It was the hottest year on record, in which the US was hammered by a series of climate-related disasters. Yet the total combined coverage for the entire year on the evening and Sunday news programmes on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News amounted to 50 minutes. Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from our minds.

This is not an accident. But nor (with the exception of Fox News) is it likely to be a matter of policy. It reflects a deeply ingrained and scarcely conscious self-censorship. Reporters and editors ignore the subject because they have an instinct for avoiding trouble. To talk about climate breakdown (which in my view is a better term than the curiously bland labels we attach to this crisis) is to question not only Donald Trump, not only current environmental policy, not only current economic policy, but the entire political and economic system.

It is to expose a programme that relies on robbing the future to fuel the present, that demands perpetual growth on a finite planet. It is to challenge the very basis of capitalism; to inform us that our lives are dominated by a system that cannot be sustained, a system that is destined, if it is not replaced, to destroy everything.

To claim that there is no link between climate breakdown and the severity of Hurricane Harvey is like claiming that there is no link between the warm summer we have experienced and the end of the last ice age. Every aspect of our weather is affected by the fact that global temperatures rose by around 4° between the ice age and the 19th Century. And every aspect of our weather is affected by the 1° of global warming caused by human activities. While no weather event can be blamed solely on human-driven warming, no weather event is unaffected by it.

We know that the severity and impact of hurricanes on coastal cities are exacerbated by at least two factors: higher sea levels, caused primarily by the thermal expansion of seawater, and greater storm intensity, caused by higher sea temperatures and the ability of warm air to hold more water than cold air.

Before it reached the Gulf of Mexico, Harvey had been demoted from a tropical storm to a tropical wave. But as it reached the Gulf, whose temperatures this month have been far above average, it was upgraded first to a tropical depression, then to a category 1 hurricane. It might have been expected to weaken as it approached the coast, as hurricanes churn the sea, bringing cooler waters to the surface. But the water it brought up from 100 metres and more was also unusually warm. By the time it reached land, Harvey had intensified to a category 4 hurricane.

We were warned about this. In June, for example, Robert Kopp, a professor of earth sciences, predicted that “In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit. Its exposure to sea-level rise – made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes – poses a major risk to its communities.”

To raise this issue, I’ve been told on social media, is to politicise Hurricane Harvey. It is an insult to the victims and a distraction from their urgent need. The proper time to discuss it is when people have rebuilt their homes, and scientists have been able to conduct an analysis of just how great the contribution from climate breakdown might have been. In other words, talk about it only when it’s out of the news. When researchers determined, 9 years on, that human activity had made a significant contribution to Hurricane Katrina, the information scarcely registered.

I believe it is the silence that’s political. To report the storm as if it were a entirely natural phenomenon, like last week’s eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure that our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe.

Hurricane Harvey offers a glimpse of a likely global future; a future whose average temperatures are as different from ours as ours are from those of the last ice age. It is a future in which emergency becomes the norm and no state has the capacity to respond. It is a future in which, as a paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters notes, disasters like Houston’s occur in some cities several times a year. It is a future that, for people in countries such as Bangladesh, has already arrived, almost unremarked by the rich world’s media. It is the act of not talking that makes this nightmare likely to materialise.

In Texas, the connection could scarcely be more apparent. The storm ripped through the oil fields, forcing rigs and refineries to shut down, including those owned by some of the 25 companies that have produced over half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have released since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Hurricane Harvey has devastated a place in which climate breakdown is generated, and in which the policies that prevent it from being addressed are formulated.

Like Donald Trump, who denies human-driven global warming, but who wants to build a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from the rising seas, these companies, some of which have spent millions sponsoring climate deniers, have progressively raised the height of their platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, in response to warnings about higher seas and stronger storms. They have grown from 40 feet above sea level in 1940, to 70ft in the 1990s, to 91ft today.

This is not, however, a story of mortal justice. In Houston, as everywhere else, it is generally the poorer communities, that are least responsible for the problem, who are hit first and hit worst. But the connection between cause and effect should appeal to even the slowest minds.

The problem is not confined to the United States. Across the world, the issue that hangs over every aspect of our lives is marginalised, except on the rare occasions on which world leaders gather to discuss it in sombre tones (then sombrely agree to do almost nothing), whereupon the instinct to follow the machinations of power overrides the instinct to avoid a troubling subject. When they do cover the issue, they tend to mangle it. In the UK, the BBC distinguished itself in customary fashion this month, by yet again inviting the climate change denier Lord Lawson onto the Today programme, in the mistaken belief that impartiality requires a balance between correct facts and false ones. They seldom make such a mess of other topics, because they take them more seriously.

When Trump’s enforcers instruct officials and scientists to purge any mention of climate change from their publications, we are scandalised. But when the media does it, without the need for a memo, we let it pass. This censorship is invisible even to the perpetrators, woven into the fabric of organisations that are constitutionally destined to leave the major questions of our times unasked. To acknowledge this issue is to challenge everything. To challenge everything is to become an outcast.

www.monbiot.com

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Dear people, I sat staring at the screen for 10 minutes and then went off when Jeannie called lunchtime. Returned to the screen a little after 2pm yesterday and still couldn’t come up with a closing thought that merited being shared with you all.

See you tomorrow!

One is never alone with a dog!

Breaking the spell of loneliness!

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.

Those words above are attributed to Mother Teresa and I have no reason to doubt that.

george_monbiot_cropped
George Monbiot

I selected them because they seemed to capture the mood that flowed out at me from a recent essay by George Monbiot.

Many will know George for he is a British writer very well-known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books.

Way back in the early days of this blog I was moved to republish some of GM’s essays and sought his permission to do just that. He responded promptly giving me blanket permission to republish any of his essays.

Now it’s a long time since I have availed myself of that permission for the simple reason that so very often George writes about matters that are tough to read and I choose not to share with you because there’s no shortage of tough commentaries about today’s world. That’s no criticism, actual or implied, into George Monbiot’s integrity as a reporter and writer.

But his essay that was published on the 4th October is one that does need to be shared with you.

Read it!

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Social Harmony

Indonesia – another example of kakistocracy?

What is happening in beautiful Indonesia is beyond imagination.

I am indebted to John Zande for introducing me to the word kakistocracy, that he explained means: “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.”

For what is happening in Indonesia could well be an awful example of kakistocracy in action.

Like numerous others I knew that there were fires burning in Indonesia and that it was all somehow caught up in illegal logging, but knew little over and above that. And that is the crux of the title of a recent essay from George Monbiot: Nothing to See Here. It really is a “must read” essay and is republished below with Mr. Monbiot’s very kind permission. As with most of his essays, they are published in the Guardian newspaper. In this case, the Guardian version includes photographs that vividly underline the terrible situation out there. I agonised about copying them from the Guardian article, without explicit permission to so do, but have nevertheless done so on the basis of this story needing to make the maximum impact on readers. The photographs are inserted in Monbiot’s essay very closely to the format that is presented in the Guardian article.

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Nothing to See Here

30th October 2015

'Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate.’ Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
‘Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate.’ Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

In the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century (so far), Indonesia has been blotted out by smoke. And the media.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 30th October 2015.

I’ve often wondered how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work.

What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.

A great tract of the Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century – so far.

[NB: The video that is embedded in the Guardian version is without sound. I have added one that is also a Greenpeace video, with sound, further on in the post.]

And the media? It’s talking about the dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the James Bond premiere, Donald Trump’s idiocy du jour and who got eliminated from the Halloween episode of Dancing with the Stars. The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?

What I’m discussing is a barbeque on a different scale. Fire is raging across the 5000-kilometre length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page.

It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. In three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

 ‘The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?’ Photograph: Abdul Qodir/AFP/Getty
‘The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?’ Photograph: Abdul Qodir/AFP/Getty

But that doesn’t really capture it. This catastrophe cannot be measured only in parts per million. The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis. Orang utans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.

One of the burning islands is West Papua, a nation that has been illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1963. I spent six months there when I was 24, investigating some of the factors that have led to the current disaster. At the time, it was a wonderland, rich with endemic species in every swamp and valley. Who knows how many of those have vanished in the past few weeks? This week I have pored and wept over photos of places I loved, that have now been reduced to ash.

Nor do the greenhouse gas emissions capture the impact on the people of these lands. After the last great conflagration, in 1997, there was a missing cohort in Indonesia of 15,000 children under the age of three, attributed to air pollution. This, it seems, is worse. The surgical masks being distributed across the nation will do almost nothing to protect those living in a sunless smog. Members of parliament in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have had to wear face masks during debates. The chamber is so foggy that they must have difficulty recognising each other.

It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases like ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.

Why is this happening? Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil. The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe.

The current president, Joko Widodo, is – or wants to be – a democrat. But he presides over a nation in which fascism and corruption flourish. As Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing shows, leaders of the death squads that helped murder around a million people during Suharto’s terror in the 1960s, with the approval of the West, have since prospered through other forms of organised crime, including illegal deforestation.

They are supported by a paramilitary organisation with three million members, called Pancasila Youth. With its orange camo-print uniforms, scarlet berets, sentimental gatherings and schmaltzy music, it looks like a fascist militia as imagined by JG Ballard. There has been no truth, no reconciliation; the mass killers are still greeted as heroes and feted on television. In some places, especially West Papua, the political murders continue.

Those who commit crimes against humanity don’t hesitate to commit crimes against nature. Though Joko Widodo seems to want to stop the burning, his reach is limited. His government’s policies are contradictory: among them are new subsidies for palm oil production that make further burning almost inevitable. Some plantation companies, prompted by their customers, have promised to stop destroying the rainforest. Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development. That smoke blotting out the nation, which has already cost it some $30 billion? That, apparently, is development.

Our leverage is weak, but there are some things we can do. Some companies using palm oil have made visible efforts to reform their supply chains; but others seem to move slowly and opaquely. Starbucks, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Unilever are examples. Don’t buy their products until they change.

On Monday, Widodo was in Washington, meeting Barack Obama. Obama, the official communiqué recorded, “welcomed President Widodo’s recent policy actions to combat and prevent forest fires”. The ecopalypse taking place as they conferred, that makes a mockery of these commitments, wasn’t mentioned.

Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. And the media ignores them because … well there’s a question with a thousand answers, many of which involve power. But one reason is the complete failure of perspective in a deskilled industry dominated by corporate press releases, photo ops and fashion shoots, where everyone seems to be waiting for everyone else to take a lead. The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening.

At the climate summit in Paris in December, the media, trapped within the intergovernmental bubble of abstract diplomacy and manufactured drama, will cover the negotiations almost without reference to what is happening elsewhere. The talks will be removed to a realm with which we have no moral contact. And, when the circus moves on, the silence will resume. Is there any other industry that serves its customers so badly?

www.monbiot.com

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Here is that Greenpeace video I referred to above.

Published on Oct 30, 2015
URGENT: Forest fires are raging through Indonesia, putting endangered orangutans and human health at risk.

Join the call to stop the fires and prevent them from ever happening again – http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/forestfires

A quick web search will offer endless pictures of this great tragedy but I will leave you with three; two showing the extent of the smoke and one that is much more an intimate photograph of the suffering animals.

indonesia-fire-map

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indonesian_haze

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In this Thursday, March 1, 2012, Indonesian veterinarian Yenni Saraswati, top center, of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) examines the condition of an injured Sumatran orangutan found by environmental activists at a palm oil plantation in Rimba Sawang village, Aceh province, Indonesia. Conservationists say fires in an Indonesian swamp forest may have killed a third of the rare Sumatran orangutans living there and all of them may be lost this year. Binsar Bakkara, Associated Press.
In this Thursday, March 1, 2012, Indonesian veterinarian Yenni Saraswati, top center, of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) examines the condition of an injured Sumatran orangutan found by environmental activists at a palm oil plantation in Rimba Sawang village, Aceh province, Indonesia. Conservationists say fires in an Indonesian swamp forest may have killed a third of the rare Sumatran orangutans living there and all of them may be lost this year.
Binsar Bakkara, Associated Press.

Monbiot wrote: “Those who commit crimes against humanity don’t hesitate to commit crimes against nature.”

One cannot avoid reflecting that this would not have happened if there hadn’t been, “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.”

Welcome to kakistocracy.

 

Forgive the introspection, Part One

This is not some intellectual exercise; far from it!

As often happens, a number of seemingly disconnected articles and reports seem to have provided a common theme. A theme that has previously been aired on Learning from Dogs yet a theme that always needs to be in the front of our faces: integrity.

Here are some of those articles.

Firstly, I presented recently in this place an essay from George Monbiot that proposed (my italics):

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.

Patrice Ayme, however, pointed out in a reply:

Saying that “people are good, while tolerating bad things” is an ineffective morality. The crux, indeed, is the moral nature of institutions, controlled by a few, not whether humans are kind or not.

That struck me as central to the theme: it is the terrible lack of integrity that we see in those who hold positions of power that totally overrides the premise that people are fundamentally good.

The next article read was an essay by Professor Michael Perelman published on Naked Capitalism. Perelman is a professor of economics at California State University. He also writes at Unsettling Economics.  Here is a little from that essay:

The architecture of inequality must be carefully constructed. As the founding fathers of the United States clearly understood, democracy must be kept in check. For this purpose, they invented the Electoral College to prevent the president from being elected by popular vote.

To ensure an effective electoral system, an obsequious media must be skilled in drowning the public with a flood of misinformation to maintain a constant level of fear to make them more likely to side with the CS (corporate system).

If there is ever one example of how that lack of integrity manifests itself in our world it is through inequality. Professor Perelman’s essay is clearly written “tongue-in-cheek” but that doesn’t lessen the impact of his essay. Try his closing paragraphs: (CES = a subset of CS; WEM = The Wondrous Efficiency of Markets)

Regulators are not the only ones to see the benefits of working with the CES. Politicians who resign or are defeated are almost inevitably destined to enjoy the benefits of their dedication to the WEM with the returns from taking a rewarding position with a major corporation, lobbying, or even a lucrative contract to write a book that virtually no one would want to read.

When done correctly, this system works magnificently, although it periodically it seems to fall apart until the detested government apparatus rescues it. In the meantime, huge amounts of wealth and income fall into the hands of the top 1%, the people of greatest importance, while the rest of the public can enjoy watching the spectacular performance of the CES, a reward worthy of their place in society especially because envy of the wealthy brethren will obviously make them work harder to succeed, adding to WEM.

All power to WEM!

Does this have anything to do with dogs?

Yes!

Let me steal a little from Chapter 16: Community from my forthcoming book:

When dogs lived in the wild, their natural pack size was about fifty animals and there were just three dogs that had pack status: the mentor, minder and nanny dogs, as described in Chapter 5. [Pharaoh: the Teaching Dog] As was explained in that chapter, all three dogs of status are born into their respective roles and their duties in their pack are instinctive. There was no such thing as competition for that role as all the other dogs in that natural pack grouping would be equal participants with no ambitions to be anything else.

Anyone who has had the privilege of living with a group of dogs will know beyond doubt that they develop a wonderful community strength. Let’s reflect on the lessons being offered for us in this regard by our dogs.

To reinforce the fact that this is not a new phenomena, at the time I was drafting my book last November, a new report was issued by the Center of Economic Policy Research (CEPR) on the latest (American) Survey of Consumer Finances. It painted a picture very familiar to many: the rich becoming richer while those with less wealth are falling further and further behind.

David Rosnick of the CEPR, and one of the report co-authors, made this important observation:

The decline in the position of typical households is even worse than the Consumer Finances survey indicates. In 1989, many workers had pensions. Far fewer do now. The value of pensions isn’t included in these surveys due to the difficulty of determining what they are worth on a current basis. But they clearly are significant assets that relatively few working age people have now.

Sharmini Peries, of The Real News Network, in an interview with David Rosnick, asked:

PERIES: David, just quickly explain to us what is the Consumer Finance Survey. I know it’s an important survey for economists, but why is it important to ordinary people? Why is it important to us?

ROSNICK: So, every three years, the Federal Reserve interviews a number of households to get an idea of what their finances are like, do they have a lot of wealth, how much are their house’s worth, how much they owe on their mortgages, how much they have in the bank account, how much stocks do wealthy people own. This gives us an idea of their situations, whether they’re going to be prepared for retirement. And we can see things like the effect of the housing and stock bubbles on people’s wealth, whether they’ve been preparing for eventual downfalls, how they’ve reacted to various economic circumstances, how they’re looking to the long term. So it’s a very useful survey in terms of finding out how households are prepared and what the distribution of wealth is like.

PERIES: So your report is an analysis of the report. And what are your key findings?

ROSNICK: So, largely over the last 24 years there’s been a considerable increase in wealth on average, but it’s been very maldistributed. Households in the bottom half of the distribution have actually seen their wealth fall, but the people at the very top have actually done very well. And so that means that a lot of people who are nearing retirement at this point in time are actually not well prepared at all for retirement and are going to be very dependent on Social Security in order to make it through their retirement years.

PERIES: So, David, address the gap. You said there’s a great gap between those that are very wealthy and those that are not. Has this gap widened over this period?

ROSNICK: It absolutely has. As, say, the top 5 percent in wealth, the average wealth for people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher in 2013, the last survey that was completed, compared to 1989. By comparison, for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent. They basically had very little to start with, and now they have less than little.

PERIES: So the poorer is getting poorer and the richer is getting extremely richer.

ROSNICK: Very much so.

To my way of thinking, if in the period 1989 through to 2013 “the average wealth for (American) people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher” and “for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent” it’s very difficult not to see the hands of greed at work and a consequential devastating increase in inequality.

In other words, the previous few paragraphs seemed to present, and present clearly, the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, comparatively speaking, and that it was now time for society to understand the trends, to reflect on where this is taking us, if left unchallenged, and to push back as hard as we can both politically and socially.

I wrote that shortly before another item appeared in my email ‘in-box’ in the middle of November (2014), a further report about inequality that, frankly, emotionally speaking, just smacked me in the face. It seemed a critical addition to the picture I was endeavouring to present.

Namely, on the 13th October, 2014, the US edition of The Guardian newspaper published a story entitled: US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. The sub-heading enlarged the headline: Not since the Great Depression has wealth inequality in the US been so acute, new in-depth study finds.

The study referred to was a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, based on research conducted by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The paper’s bland title belied the reality of the research findings: Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913.

As the Guardian reported:

Wealth inequality in the US is at near record levels according to a new study by academics. Over the past three decades, the share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% has increased from 7% to 22%. For the bottom 90% of families, a combination of rising debt, the collapse of the value of their assets during the financial crisis, and stagnant real wages have led to the erosion of wealth. The share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%.

The picture actually improved in the aftermath of the 1930s Great Depression, with wealth inequality falling through to the late 1970s. It then started to rise again, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1% rising to 22% in 2012 from 7% in the late 1970s. The top 0.1% includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20m (£13m) in 2012.

In contrast, the share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90% of families fell from a peak of 36% in the mid-1980s, to 23% in 2012 – just one percentage point above the top 0.1%.

The report was not exclusively about the USA. As the closing paragraphs in The Guardian’s article illustrated:

Among the nine G20 countries with sufficient data, the richest 1% of people (by income) have increased their income share significantly since 1980, according to Oxfam. In Australia, for example, the top 1% earned 4.8% of the country’s income in 1980. That had risen to more than 9% by 2010.

Oxfam says that in the time that Australia has held the G20 presidency (between 2013 and 2014) the total wealth in the G20 increased by $17tn but the richest 1% of people in the G20 captured $6.2tn of this wealth – 36% of the total increase.

I find it incredibly difficult to have any rational response to those figures. I am just aware that there is a flurry of mixed emotions inside me and, perhaps, that’s how I should leave it. Nonetheless, there’s one thing that I can’t keep to myself and that this isn’t the first time that such inequality has arisen; the period leading up the the Great Depression of the 1930s comes immediately to mind.

What on earth is coming down the road this time!

If only we truly could learn from our dogs!

Never stop fighting for a better world.

Protecting our right to breathe good, clean air.

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Fundamentally, today’s post is not about dogs. But it is about the qualities that we can see in our dogs: trust, honesty, openness, and the core quality that inspires my writings about dogs: integrity.

I’m speaking of the disgusting news that has been headlined in the world’s media in recent days, no better summarised than by this extract from a current (1pm PDT yesterday)) BBC news report:

Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn has resigned following the revelation that the firm manipulated US diesel car emissions tests.

Mr Winterkorn said he was “shocked” by recent events and that the firm needed a “fresh start”.

He added that he was “not aware of any wrongdoing on my part” but was acting in the interest of the company.

VW has already said that it is setting aside €6.5bn (£4.7bn) to cover the costs of the scandal.

The world’s biggest carmaker admitted last week that it deceived US regulators in exhaust emissions tests by installing a device to give more positive results.

The company said later that it affected 11 million vehicles worldwide.

As ever, the voice of George Monbiot speaks a little clearer than most, and I am referring to his recent essay published both on his blog and in The Guardian newspaper.  I am very pleased to have Monbiot’s permission to republish his essay here on Learning from Dogs.

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Smoke and Mirrors

22nd September 2015

Pollution, as scandals on both sides of the Atlantic show, is a physical manifestation of corruption.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 23 September 2015

In London, the latest figures suggest, it now kills more people than smoking. Worldwide, a new study estimates, it causes more deaths than malaria and HIV-Aids together. I’m talking about the neglected health crisis of this age, that we seldom discuss or even acknowledge. Air pollution.

Heart attacks, strokes, asthma, lung and bladder cancers, low birth weight, low verbal IQ, poor memory and attention among children, faster cognitive decline in older people and – recent studies suggest – a link with the earlier onset of dementia: all these are among the impacts of a problem that, many still believe, we solved decades ago. The smokestacks may have moved to China, but other sources, whose fumes are less visible, have taken their place. Among the worst are diesel engines, sold, even today, as the eco-friendly option, on the grounds that their greenhouse gas emissions tend to be lower than those of petrol engines. You begin to wonder whether any such claims can still be trusted.

Volkswagen’s rigging of its pollution tests is an assault on our lungs, our hearts, our brains. It is a classic example of externalisation: the dumping of costs that businesses should carry onto other people. The air that should have been filtered by its engines is filtered by our lungs instead. We have become the scrubbing devices it failed to install.

Who knows how many people have paid for this crime already, with their health or with their lives? In the USA, 200,000 deaths a year are attributed to air pollution. For how many of those might Volkswagen be responsible? Where else was the fraud perpetrated? Of what proportion of our health budgets has this company robbed us?

The fraud involves the detection of nitrogen oxides (NOx), of which diesel engines are the major source in many places. This month, for the first time in our history, the UK government estimated the impact of NOx emissions on public health, and discovered that they are likely almost to double the number of deaths from air pollution, adding 23,000 to the 29,000 attributed to particulates (tiny particles of soot).

The government released this discovery, alongside its useless proposals for dealing with the problem, on Saturday 12 September, a few minutes before Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was announced. How many government press releases are published on a Saturday? How many are published on a Saturday during an event on which everyone is focused? In other words, as a Labour press officer once notoriously advised, this was “a good day to bury bad news”. Not only was the number of deaths buried by this means, but so was the government’s consultation on its feeble plans for reducing this pollution: a consultation to which it evidently wanted as few respondents as possible. Liz Truss, the environment secretary, has some explaining to do.

She has her reasons for keeping us in the dark. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the UK is in breach of the European air quality directive, and insisted that the government draw up a plan for compliance by the end of this year. Instead, Truss produced a plan to shed responsibility. Local authorities, her consultation suggests, should create clean air zones in at least eight cities, in which diesel engines are restricted or banned. But she has given them neither new money nor new powers. Nor has she offered an explanation of how this non-plan is going to address the issue in the rest of the country, as the ruling demands.

Already, the UK has missed the European deadline by six years. Under Truss’s proposals, some places are likely still to be in breach by 2025: 16 years after the original deadline. I urge you to respond to the consultation she wanted you to miss, which closes on November 6.

The only concrete plan the government has produced so far is to intensify the problem, through a new programme of airport expansion. This means more nitrous oxides, more particulates, more greenhouse gas emissions.

Paradoxically, the Volkswagen scandal may succeed where all else has failed, by obliging the government to take the only action that will make a difference: legislating for a great reduction in the use of diesel engines. By the time this article is published, we might know whether the company’s scam has been perpetrated in Europe as well as North America: new revelations are dripping by the hour. But whether or not this particular deception was deployed here, plenty of others have been.

Last week the Guardian reported that nine out of ten new diesel cars break European limits on nitrous oxides – not by a little but by an average of sevenfold. Every manufacturer whose emissions were tested had cars in breach of the legal limit. They used a number of tricks to hotwire the tests: “stripping components from the car to reduce weight, using special lubricants, over-inflating tyres and using super-smooth test tracks.” In other words, the emissions scandal is not confined to Volkswagen, not confined to a single algorithm and not confined to North America: it looks, in all its clever variants, like a compound global swindle.

There are echoes here of the ploys used by the tobacco industry: grand deceptions smuggled past the public with the help of sophisticated marketing. Volkswagen sites advertising the virtues of “clean diesel” have been dropping offline all day. In 2009, the year in which its scam began, the TDI engine at the centre of the scandal won the Volkswagen Jetta 2.0 the green car of the year award. In 2010, it did the same for the Audi A3.

There’s plenty that’s wrong with corporate regulation in the United States, but at least the fines, when they occur, are big enough to make a corporation pause, and there’s a possibility of guilty executives ending up in prison. Here, where corruption, like pollution, is both omnipresent and invisible, major corporations can commit almost any white-collar crime and get away with it. Schemes of the kind that have scandalised America are, in this country, both commonplace and unremarked. How can such governments be trusted to defend our health?

www.monbiot.com

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I found myself having two emotional reactions to Monbiot’s essay. The first was that for many years, when I was living and working in England, I drove diesel-powered cars on the (now false) belief that they were better for the environment.

My second reaction was to Monbiot listing the likely impacts from air pollution,”Heart attacks, strokes, asthma, lung and bladder cancers, low birth weight, low verbal IQ, poor memory and attention among children, faster cognitive decline in older people and – recent studies suggest – a link with the earlier onset of dementia. . . “, for the reason that at the age of 70, I am already noticing the creeping onset of reduced verbal IQ, cognitive decline, and worry about the onset of dementia. To think that my earlier decisions about what cars to drive might be a factor in this is disturbing.

I am going to close this post by highlighting how fighting for what we want is important, critically so. By republishing an item that was posted on AmericaBlog just over a year ago, that fortuitously is a reward for living in the State of Oregon.

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Climate win: Appeals court in Oregon rules state court must decide if atmosphere is a “public trust”

6/16/14 10:00am by Gaius Publius

Two teenagers from Eugene, Ore. filed suit against Governor Kitzhaber and the State of Oregon for failing to protect the “atmosphere, state waters, and coast lines, as required under the public trust doctrine.”

They lost the first round, where the state court said that climate relief was not a judicial matter. But they won on appeal. The case goes back to the original court, which now has orders to decide the case on its merits and not defer to the executive or legislature.

The gist of the appeals court decision:

Their lawsuit asked the State to take action in restoring the atmosphere to 350 ppm of CO2 by the end of the century. The Oregon Court of Appeals rejected the defenses raised by the State, finding that the youth could obtain meaningful judicial relief in this case.

That’s quite a nice victory. Here’s the full story, from the Western Environmental Law Center (my emphasis throughout):

Keeling-curve_CO2_ppm_Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide_Apr2013.svg_-300x201

In a nationally significant decision in the case Chernaik v. Kitzhaber, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled a trial court must decide whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource that the state of Oregon, as a trustee, has a duty to protect. Two youth plaintiffs were initially told they could not bring the case by the Lane County Circuit Court. The trial court had ruled that climate change should be left only to the legislative and executive branches. Today, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned that decision.

Two teenagers from Eugene, Kelsey Juliana and Olivia Chernaik, filed the climate change lawsuit against Governor Kitzhaber and the State of Oregon for failing to protect essential natural resources, including the atmosphere, state waters, and coast lines, as required under the public trust doctrine. Their lawsuit asked the State to take action in restoring the atmosphere to 350 ppm of CO2 by the end of the century. The Oregon Court of Appeals rejected the defenses raised by the State, finding that the youth could obtain meaningful judicial relief in this case. …

In reversing the Lane County trial court, the Oregon Court of Appeals remanded the case ordering the trial court to make the judicial declaration it previously refused to make as to whether the State, as trustee, has a fiduciary obligation to protect the youth from the impacts of climate change, and if so, what the State must do to protect the atmosphere and other public trust resources.

The implications of this are broad, and similar cases are pending in other states, as the article describes.

Make no mistake; decisions like this matter. It places the court squarely in the mix as a power player in the climate war, the fight for “intergenerational justice” as James Hansen puts it — or the war against intergenerational betrayal, as I put it.

This is a cornerstone decision from the Oregon Court of Appeals in climate change jurisprudence. The court definitively ruled that the question of whether government has an obligation to protect the atmosphere from degradation leading to climate change is a question for the judiciary, and not for the legislative or executive branches. The Court did not opine as to how that question should be answered, only that it should be answered by the judiciary.

We can win this; it’s not over. If we reach 450 ppm and we’re still not stopping with the CO2, then it’s over and I become a novelist full-time. But we’re not there yet, and please don’t surrender as if we were.

The courts are now a powerful tool, as is divestment. James Hansen has a way to restore the atmosphere to 350 ppm CO2 in time to stop slow feedbacks from kicking in. It’s a doable plan, but we’ll need to use force. Using the courts, as with using divestment campaigns, counts as force. Stay tuned.

(Want to use force at the national level? Find a way to challenge Obama publicly to stop leasing federal land to coal companies. He’s a hypocrite until he stops federal coal from being mined and sold abroad. A simple and obvious challenge for him. You too can be the activist.)

GP

Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
Facebook: Gaius Publi

(Facebook note: To get the most from a Facebook recommendation, be sure to Share what you also Like. Thanks.)

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 Never forget that you, me and every other good-minded person on this planet can make a positive difference. Need inspiration? Gain it from our dogs! Let’s use the liberty we enjoy to make a difference.

More on that nose!

An article in The Guardian is worth highlighting.

I have long been an admirer of The Guardian newspaper way back before I became a US resident. Thus an article that appeared on the website of The Guardian US newspaper seemed perfect for a mention in this place. It was an article entitled Cadaver dogs: attending camp with the canines trained to smell death and written by Liz Lucking.  Here’s a tiny extract from the article:

A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times greater than a human’s, depending on the breed. But despite their formidable noses, these dogs still need assistance, direction and training to reach their full potential.

The Penn Vet Working Dog Center does exactly that. Founded in 2007 and part of the University of Pennsylvania, the training centre and research program is dedicated to helping advance the success of working dogs.

I then went across to the Penn Vet Working Dog Centre website that was full of interesting information, including details of their Internships, Externships & Fellowships. So if that strikes a chord with a reader then that’s great.

That Guardian article also mentioned the American Rescue Dog Association and their website is full of fabulous information, as this extract from their welcome page endorses:

The American Rescue Dog Association® (ARDA®) is comprised of highly skilled volunteer search and rescue units across the United States that operate in conjunction with local law enforcement or other applicable emergency services agencies to assist in the location of missing persons. ARDA units provide specially trained dogs to locate missing persons in wilderness, disaster, human remains and water search and rescue/recovery missions. Each member unit is required to adhere to the Association’s rigid standards and undergo a rigorous two-day field evaluation every three years to ensure these standards are being maintained.

Units are available 24-hours a day to respond to requests for services from applicable local, state or federal responsible agencies.

Our search and rescue canine teams deploy in many circumstances, at several levels, at no cost to Federal and Local departments. ARDA resources operate solely as volunteers, and rely on donations for our continued operations.

Finally, searching YouTube for ARDA produced the following.

Another day: Another example of what our fabulous dogs provide to humans.

We are what we eat!

Some aspects of our food that many of us would rather not know about!

Many readers will be used to me republishing the essays from George Monbiot. Admittedly, not every single one of them but especially those that seem to have a message that deserves a wider promulgation. Having Mr. Monbiot’s permission to so do is generous of him.

Yesterday, there was an essay written by him that was published both on his blog and in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper. At first reading, it seemed to apply predominantly to the United Kingdom. Then, upon a second reading, I was convinced that this was yet another ‘message’ that quite happily fits in here, on Learning from Dogs. Because it is another reminder that integrity is missing from so many aspects of our societies.

You be the judge!

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Fowl Deeds

19th May 2015

The astonishing, multiple crises caused by chicken farming.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 20th May 2015

It’s the insouciance that baffles me. To participate in the killing of an animal: this is a significant decision. It spreads like a fungal mycelium into the heartwood of our lives. Yet many people eat meat sometimes two or three times a day, casually and hurriedly, often without even marking the fact.

I don’t mean to blame. Billions are spent, through advertising and marketing, to distract and mollify, to trivialise the weighty decisions we make, to ensure we don’t connect. Even as we search for meaning and purpose, we want to be told that our actions are inconsequential. We seek reassurance that we are significant, but that what we do is not.

It’s not blind spots we suffer from. We have vision spots, tiny illuminated patches of perception, around which everything else is blanked out. How often have I seen environmentalists gather to bemoan the state of the world, then repair to a restaurant in which they gorge on beef or salmon? The Guardian and Observer urge us to go green, then publish recipes for fish whose capture rips apart the life of the sea.

The television chefs who bravely sought to break this spell might have been talking to the furniture. Giant chicken factories are springing up throughout the west of England, the Welsh Marches and the lowlands of the east. I say factories for this is what they are: you would picture something quite different if I said farm; they are hellish places. You might retch if you entered one, yet you eat what they produce without thinking.

Two huge broiler units are now being planned to sit close to where the River Dore rises, at the head of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, one of the most gorgeous landscapes in Britain. Each shed at Bage Court Farm – warehouses 90 metres long – is likely to house about 40,000 birds, that will be cleared out, killed and replaced every 40 days or so. It remains to be seen how high the standards of welfare, employment and environment will be.

The UK now has some 2,000 of these factories, to meet a demand for chicken that has doubled in 40 years [1]. Because everything is automated, they employ few people, and those in hideous jobs: picking up and binning the birds that drop dead every day, catching chickens for slaughter in a flurry of shit and feathers, then scraping out the warehouses before the next batch arrives.

The dust such operations raise is an exquisite compound of aerialised faeces, chicken dander, mites, bacteria, fungal spores, mycotoxins, endotoxins, veterinary medicines, pesticides, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. It is listed as a substance hazardous to health, and helps explain why 15% of poultry workers suffer from chronic bronchitis. Yet, uniquely in Europe, the British government classifies unfiltered roof vents on poultry sheds as the “best available technology”. If this were any other industry, it would be obliged to build a factory chimney to disperse the dust and the stink. But farming, as ever, is protected by deference and vested interest, excused from the regulations, planning conditions and taxes other business must observe. Already, Herefordshire County Council has approved chicken factories close to schools, without surveying the likely extent of the dust plumes either before or after the business opens. Bage Court Farm is just upwind of the village of Dorstone.

Inside chicken factories are scenes of cruelty practised on such a scale that they almost lose their ability to shock. Bred to grow at phenomenal speeds, many birds collapse under their own weight, and lie in the ammoniacal litter, acquiring burns on their feet and legs and lesions on their breasts. After slaughter they are graded. Those classified as grade A can be sold whole. The others must have parts of the body removed, as they are disfigured by bruising, burning and necrosis. The remaining sections are cut up and sold as portions. Hungry yet?

Plagues spread fast through such factories, so broiler businesses often dose their birds with antibiotics. These require prescriptions but – amazingly – the government keeps no record of how many are issued. The profligate use of antibiotics on farms endangers human health, as it makes bacterial resistance more likely.

But Herefordshire, like other county councils in the region, scarcely seems to care. How many broiler units has it approved? Who knows? Searches by local people suggest 42 in the past 12 months. But in December the council claimed it has authorised 21 developments since 2000. [2] This week it told me it has granted permission to 31 since 2010. It admits that it “has not produced any specific strategy for managing broiler unit development” [3]. Nor has it assessed the cumulative impact of these factories. At Bage Court Farm, as elsewhere, it has decided that no environmental impact assessment is needed [4].

So how should chicken be produced? The obvious answer is free range, but this exchanges one set of problems for another. Chicken dung is rich in soluble reactive phosphate. Large outdoor flocks lay down a scorching carpet of droppings, from which phosphate can leach or flash into the nearest stream. Rivers like the Ithon, in Powys, are said to run white with chicken faeces after rainstorms. The River Wye, a special area of conservation, is blighted by algal blooms: manure stimulates the growth of green murks and green slimes that kill fish and insects when they rot. Nor does free range solve the feed problem: the birds are usually fed on soya, for which rainforests and cerrado on the other side of the world are wrecked.

There is no sensible way of producing the amount of chicken we eat. Reducing the impact means eating less meat – much less. I know that most people are not prepared to stop altogether, but is it too much to ask that we should eat meat as our grandparents did, as something rare and special, rather than as something we happen to be stuffing into our faces while reading our emails? To recognise that an animal has been sacrificed to serve our appetites, to observe the fact of its death, is this not the least we owe it?

Knowing what we do and what we induce others to do is a prerequisite for a life that is honest and meaningful. We owe something to ourselves as well: to overcome our disavowal, and connect.

http://www.monbiot.com

[1] Total purchases for household consumption (uncooked, pre-cooked and take-aways combined) rose from 126 grammes per person per week in 1974 to 259 grammes in 2013 (see the database marked UK – household purchases).

[2] BBC Hereford and Worcester, 15th December 2014

[3] Response to FoI request IAT 7856, 13th August 2014

[4] Herefordshire County Council, 22nd December 2014. Screening Determination of Bage Court Farm development, P143343/F

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Jean and I found a way to watch the BBC Panorama programme that was broadcast recently. It was screened under the title of Antibiotic Apocalypse. This is how the programme was introduced on the BBC website:

Panorama investigates the global advance of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and the threat they pose to modern medicine and millions of patients worldwide. Reporter Fergus Walsh travels to India and finds restricted, life-saving antibiotics on sale without prescription and talks to NHS patients whose recovery depends on them.

There is much in George Monbiot’s essay that resonates with the findings of that Panorama programme. Indeed, the Panorama programme showed the extent of the use of antibiotics in many animals over and beyond chickens.

It hardly needs to be said by me that the reason this is republished in a blog based in Southern Oregon, USA is because this is a problem that is not unique to the United Kingdom; far from it!

What a strange species we humans are!

OK, Time for Change!

George Monbiot’s devastating analysis of British politics.

Note to readers:

When you start reading the following introduction, ahead of George Monbiot’s essay, you may be excused for thinking I have lost the plot!  However, trust me there is a purpose. For this blog is called Learning from Dogs.

Introduction

We know that the relationship between Planet Earth and man, as in H. sapiens, goes back around 200,000 years.

We also know, indicated by DNA evidence, that the dog separated from the grey wolf about 100,000 years ago.

The relationship between dogs and man goes back thousands of years as well; “The going theory is that dogs were domesticated somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago.“[1]

Certainly, the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by man. In fact, some archaeologists speculate that without the dog man could not have been such a successful ‘hunter-gatherer’ allowing, in time, man to evolve into farming; the real start of modern man.

But what of today?

There is little doubt that many people, even with the minimum of awareness about the world that we live in, are deeply worried. On so many fronts there are forbidding and scary views. It feels as though all the certainty of past times has gone; as if all the trusted models of society are now broken. Whether we are talking politics, economics, employment or the environment, nothing seems to be working.

Why is this? What’s the cause?

It would be easy to condemn man’s drive for progress and an insatiable self-centredness as root causes. But it’s not the case, certainly not the whole case.

The root cause is clear. It is this. How mankind has developed is the result of mankind’s behaviours. All of us behave in many ways that are hugely damaging to the survival of our species upon this planet. It is likely that these behaviours are little unchanged over thousands of years.

But 2,000 years ago, the global population of man was only 300 million. It took 1,200 years for that global population to become 1 billion; in 1800. Now track the intervals as we come forward in time.

In 1927, just 127 years later, the two-billionth baby was born. In 1960, only 33 years on, the three-billionth baby. Just 16 years on, in 1974, the four-billionth baby was born. In 1987, 13 years later, five billion. Around October 1999, the sixth-billionth baby was born! It’s trending to a billion every decade. In other words, a 100-million population growth every year, or about 270,000 more persons every single day!

Combine man’s historic behaviours with this growth of population and we have the present situation. A totally unsustainable situation disconnected from the finite planet that supports us.

The only viable solution is to amend our behaviours. To tap into the powers of integrity, self-awareness and mindfulness and change our game.

We all have to work with the fundamental, primary relationships we have with each other and with the planet upon which we all depend. We need a level of consciousness with each other and with the living, breathing planet that will empower change. We need spiritual enlightenment. And we need it now!

That is why we have so much to learn from dogs. They are man’s best friend. They are man’s oldest friend. They have a relationship with us that is very special; possibly verging on the telepathic.[2]

They can show us how we need to live our lives. Now!

[1] The Origin of Dogs, Scientific American, August 20th, 2009
[2] Refer Dr Rupert Sheldrake best known for his theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance

The George Monbiot essay.

(I hope as you read his essay, you can now understand the reasoning behind my introduction.)

Republished with the very kind permission of Mr. George Monbiot.

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Code of Silence

Almost all the issues worth debating are left unmentioned in this election.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 6th May 2015

Political coverage is never more trivial or evanescent than during an election. Where we might hope for enlightenment about the issues on which we will vote, we find gossip about the habits and style of political leaders, an obsession with statistically meaningless shifts in opinion polls and empty speculation about outcomes. (All this is now compounded by the birth of a royal baby, which means that our heads must simultaneously be dunked in a vat of sycophantic slobber). Anyone would think that the media didn’t want us to understand the choices confronting us.

While analysis of the issues dividing the political parties is often weak, coverage of those they have collectively overlooked is almost non-existent. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the SNP might claim to be at each other’s throats, but they have often reached consensus about which issues are worthy of debate. This article will list a few of the omissions.

The first is so obvious that it should feature in every political discussion: the corrupt and broken system under which we will vote. The argument I’ve heard several Labour activists use – “vote for us because it’s the best we can hope for under first-past-the-post” – would carry more weight if Labour had any plans to change the system.

Where are the furious arguments about the UK’s unreformed political funding, that allows billionaires and corporations to buy the politics they want? Where is the debate about the use and abuse of royal prerogative by successive prime ministers? Where is there even a mention of the democratic black hole at the heart of Britain, into which hopes for financial and fiscal reform are sucked: the Corporation of the City of London, whose illegitimate powers pre-date the Magna Carta?

Here’s a fact with which politicans should be assailed every day: the poor in this country pay more tax than the rich. If you didn’t know this – and most people don’t* – it’s because you’ve been trained not to know it through relentless efforts by the corporate media. It distracts us by fixating on income tax, one of the few sources of revenue that’s unequivocally progressive. But this accounts for just 27% of total taxation. Overall, the richest tenth pay 35% of their income in tax, while the poorest tenth pay 43%, largely because of the regressive nature of VAT and council tax. The Equality Trust found that 96% of respondents to its survey would like a more progressive system. But where is the major party mobilising this desire, or even explaining the current injustice?

A comprehensive failure to tax land and property is a policy shared by the three major English parties, mansion tax notwithstanding. None of them seems to mind that this failure helps to replace the entrepreneurial society they claim to support with an economy based on rent and patrimonial capital. None of them seems to mind that their elaborate fiscal ringfencing of land and buildings clashes with their professed belief that capital should be used productively.

Nor will any of them mount an effective challenge to kleptoremuneration: executives siphoning off wealth they had no role in creating. None seek to modify a limited liability regime so generous that it allowed the multi-millionaire authors of the financial crisis, such as Fred Goodwin and Matt Ridley, to walk away from the pain they helped to inflict without forfeiting a penny.

Even these issues are trivial by comparison to the unacknowledged cloud that hangs over our politics: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. All major parties and media outlets are committed to never-ending economic growth, and use GDP as the primary measure of human progress. Even to question this is to place yourself outside the frame of rational political debate.

To service this impossible dream, we must work relentlessly, often in jobs that deliver no social utility and cause great harm. Who in politics is brave enough to propose that we work less and enjoy life more? Who will challenge working conditions characterised by ridiculous quotas and impossible demands, or reform a social security regime more draconian and intrusive than day release from prison? Who is prepared to wonder aloud what all this striving and punishment is for?

And how about some acknowledgement of the epidemic of loneliness, or the shocking rise in conditions such as self-harm, eating disorders, depression, performance anxiety and social phobia? Evidently, these are not fit and proper subjects for political discourse, which creates the impression that those who suffer them are not fit and proper electors.

How about some arguments over the loss of public space? Or a debate about what’s happening to children, confined as never before within four walls, both at school and at home? How about some recognition of the radical changes in transport demand, that are likely, in the age of peak car and peak plane, to render redundant the new roads and airports to which all the large parties are committed? Forget it.

The national and global collapse of biodiversity, the horrifying rate of soil loss, the conflict between aspirations to minimise climate change and maximise the production of fossil fuels: none of these are put before voters as issues of significant difference. All major parties tacitly agree to carry on as before.

Politicians will not break these silences voluntarily. They are enforced by a narrow and retentive public discourse, dominated by the corporate media and the BBC, that ignores or stifles new ideas, grovels to the elite and ostracises the excluded, keeping this nation in a state of arrested development.

After this election, we need to think again; to find new means of pushing neglected issues onto the political agenda. We might try to discover why the social media have so far mostly failed to fulfill their democratising promise. We might seek new ways of building political communities, using models as diverse as Podemos and evangelical Christianity. We might experiment with some of the Latin American techniques that have helped to transform politics from the bottom up. However we do it, we should never again permit democracy to be reduced to so narrow a choice.

www.monbiot.com

* 68% of respondents to the Equality Trust’s Survey believed that households in the highest 10% income group pay more of their income in tax than households in the lowest 10% income group.

ooOOoo

(Readers in other countries will easily be able to identify their country’s version of the issues that Mr. Monbiot speaks about.)

Conclusion

Sooner or later, and preferably sooner, each and every one of us must start looking at ourselves in the mirror, every morning, and say, “What behaviour will I change today to save this planet for all future generations?

Protecting the brain.

The joys of growing ever more old!

Last Saturday, in a humorous post called Cognitive Ageing, I wrote:

Or put another way: I can remember everything except the things I forget.

Like many others of my age, the short-term memory is not as sharp as it used to be (not that I can remember when that was! 😉 )

Today’s post is to pass on a recommendation for a programme called Lumosity. It was recommended to me by my local doctor and I signed up in February of this year. Clearly, it is impossible to know, in a scientific way, how much good it has done me but instinctively I feel it has made a strong, positive difference.  Let me quote from their website:

The Science Behind Lumosity

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Neuroplasticity: how the brain is capable of change

Scientists have historically believed that once a person reaches adulthood, their cognitive abilities are immutable. But beginning in the early twentieth century, that theory has been contested by evidence suggesting that the brain’s abilities are in fact malleable and plastic. According to this principle of neuroplasticity, the brain is constantly changing in response to various experiences. New behaviors, new learnings, and even environmental changes or physical injuries may all stimulate the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganize existing ones, fundamentally altering how information is processed.

One of the most dramatic examples of neuroplasticity at work comes from a 2000 brain scan study on London taxi drivers (Maguire et al., 2000). In order to earn a license, London taxi drivers typically spend about two years learning to navigate the city’s serpentine streets. What mark, the study’s researchers wondered, did this long, rigorous period of training leave on taxi drivers’ brains? Under the scrutiny of fMRI scans, 16 male taxi drivers in this study were revealed to have larger hippocampuses than a control group of 50 healthy males of similar ages. And the longer the time spent as a taxi driver, the larger the hippocampus tended to be. As a brain area involved in memory and navigation, the hippocampus likely changed in response to the taxi drivers’ experiences.

Most instances of neuroplasticity-based changes in the brain are much more subtle. But in recent decades, it’s cases like that of the London taxi drivers that have inspired certain members of the scientific community to pursue the next logical step in research: rather than passively waiting to see how the brain might respond to circumstances, is it possible to direct that capacity for change, targeting improvements in specific key abilities?

The science of cognitive training seeks to answer this question. In 2013 alone, 30 cognitive training studies were registered on the government database ClinicalTrials.gov. Lumosity scientists, with the help of outside collaborators, contribute to this research effort: so far, 7 peer reviewed studies have been published using Lumosity as a cognitive training tool for diverse populations, including healthy adults, cancer survivors, elderly people, and children with a genetic disorder.

Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S. J., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(8), 4398-4403.

Clearly, without trying it out yourself, it’s difficult for me to convey the nature of the ‘games’ that are provided.

What I can do is to republish a review that appeared on the website MD-Health.

Does Lumosity Work?

Lumosity was designed by several leading neuroscientists, which adds an air of credibility to this popular site, and combines the perks of social networking with brain training technology that supposedly makes your brain function at a higher level. But do these brain training games really work? There is plenty of evidence to support and contract the claims made by this popular gaming website, so it is important to look at the facts before making this determination.

What is Lumosity?

Lumosity is a webpage that features several different brain training games. Players are encouraged to create a profile that allows them to track their progress and play certain games that target mental flexibility, memory, problem solving, speed and attention. The idea is that performing these tasks regularly will help “train” your brain to function more effectively.

How Does Lumosity Work?

The web page explains that Lumosity is based on neuroplasticity, which treats the brain like a muscle that needs to adapt when it is presented with new challenges. The idea here is that if you present your brain with harder challenges, the portion of your brain meant to help solve them will grow larger and more functional. Previously it was believed that neuroplasticity was only available in children with brains that were still developing, but recent science leads researchers to believe that this skill is also available for adults.

Lumosity depends on two basic elements when users create their training program. First, users need to use the program regularly. This is similar to creating a daily routine at your local gym to work and tone your muscles. Your routine will not be as effective if you do not stick with it. The second part of this training program depends on users using many different types of games. There are 35 different games available on Lumosity in addition to many different skill levels within these games. Players should use a variety of different games and increase the difficulty level over time to help ensure that they are continuing to challenge the mind. Creating your initial profile gives the player an opportunity to see what weaknesses they have so they can create a routine that is ideal for their situation.

Is Lumosity Effective?

There are several scientific studies that lead scientists to believe that the brain training activities at Lumosity do have an effect on the brain. A study at the University of Michigan found that adults that used brain training games for a regular amount of time saw an improvement in test scores for dual attention asks and memory games in multiple tests. A similar study at Brown University also saw adults exceeding expectations in brain performance after using brain training games to aid in their work. These programs were found to boost the working memory which helps users keep track of tasks they are currently performing.

The thing to remember when analyzing these results is that they came from laboratory conditions. These adults used Lumosity games for hours every day for several months. Users that do not work on a similar schedule will not see these types of results. There is a great deal of evidence that supports the idea that brain training games can help grow and develop the mind, but not necessarily any evidence that Lumosity and the brain training games available here are more effective than other training games that are on the market elsewhere. In general, keeping the mind active and challenging your mind to learn more advanced tasks and ways of thinking are healthy and can help you perform tasks more effectively, and if Lumosity helps you accomplish this, then it can be seen as a positive asset.

There was a review published in The Guardian newspaper back in April, 2013 from which this extract is offered:

According to the website for Lumosity, which devised these games and is one of the best-known internet providers of brain training, setting aside a few minutes each day to complete the above tasks can make you feel “smarter, sharper, and brighter”. By factoring in a mental workout in the same way that we might go to the gym to exercise, we get cleverer and our IQ rockets.

That, at least, is the idea. And there are lots of people who buy it. In recent years, brain training has become a multimillion-pound business with companies such as Jungle Memory, Nintendo and CogniFit developing a wide range of user-friendly neuroscientific puzzles for the average punter. Lumosity itself has grown by 150% year-on-year since its launch in 2005 and now reaches more than 35 million people worldwide. In January alone, the company’s mobile app was downloaded nearly 50,000 times a day and its revenue hit $24m (£16m).

Co-founded by Michael Scanlon after he abandoned his neuroscience PhD at Stanford University, California, the business also has an extensive research programme that studies the effects of computerised cognitive training as well as conducting experiments over the web.

I can also republish another article from the Lumosity website:

The Science Behind Lumosity

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The scientific roots of the Lumosity program

Research has found that certain types of activities may impact the brain more than others (Mechelli et al., 2004; Gaser and Schlaug, 2003; Draganski et al., 2006). It’s believed that as an activity is repeated, the brain tends to fall back on the same set of existing neural pathways. To continue changing, the brain must be exposed to novel, adaptive experiences that challenge it to work in new ways.

Drawing on this idea, Lumosity is designed to give each person a set of exercises that challenge their cognitive abilities.

Lumosity “games” are based on a combination of common neuropsychological and cognitive tasks, many of which have been used in research for decades, and new tasks designed by an in-house science team. Working with experienced game designers, Lumosity neuroscientists have transformed these tasks into over 40 challenging, adaptive games.

Lumosity’s game-based training program is designed to expose your brain to gradually increasing levels of challenges, adapting game difficulty to your individual ability level. As your scores increase, you may encounter new or more difficult games. Modelled from the concept of a physical personal trainer, Lumosity pushes you to operate at the limits of your abilities and stay challenged.

Gaser, C. & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9240-9245.

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Kempermann, G., Kuhn, H. G., Winkler, J., Büchel, C., & May, A (2006). Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23), 6314-6317.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Price, C.J. (2004). Neurolinguistics: Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431, 757.

Lumosity is not expensive and while it is impossible to be objective about the positive difference it is giving me I wouldn’t give up on it.

Now where did I leave my car keys???