Russell Brand, utopia and the posthuman

This blog post was previously published in November 2013 on the now discontinued Weeks Centre Blog, a blog of the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, at London South Bank University.

I have re-published this article, and I have done so now, because these issues are all the more pressing, and become more so every day. As environmental degradation reaches new heights; widespread protests continue in Lebanon and across South America; and the British public disastrously fail to elect the right (good and just) man for the job this week*, this old article raises some key issues that rear their head again.  That is: post ‘democracy’, post-politics, where do we go now? 

A densely-packed twenty-minute-read.

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So everyone is talking about Russell Brand. And he has been variously praised and criticised, both for his somewhat epic editorial in the New Statesman special edition on Revolution, and his précis of these ideas in dialogue with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, but also for his ubiquitous presence as a media celebrity.  It is not my aim here to get into discussions about ‘is he a misogynist’? Or ‘should celebrities have such a platform’? because I think we’ve heard these debates, but what I want to do here is connect his ideas with social theory. What is he actually talking about in terms of the zeitgeist and immanent revolution, and do his ideas have any purchase? What can an academic analysis bring to this?

Currently, I am writing a proposal with Yvette Taylor and Kim Allen to edit a book on ‘Riotous Subjects: Activism, Resistance, Resilience’, and Russell Brand’s recent interjection in the New Statesman speaks to many of the issues that this collection hopes to explore. In a global context of economic crash, crisis, cuts and austerity, and as the neoliberal stranglehold tightens and the organised Left fails to win the minds of the people, this edited collection, building on and extending beyond, the events of the English Riots of 2011, hopes to explore ‘resistant’ spaces, possibilities and subjects. The idea for this book is about ‘after and what next?’: a new paradigm. The collection aims to speak to an ‘after’ the Riots; to challenge us to think about ‘after’ neoliberal capitalism, but also to think about ‘after’ the Left.

So, in preparation for this book proposal I have been reading an article in the Journal for Cultural Research by Lisa Garforth (2009), sociologist at the University of Newcastle, about Utopia, but also Italian-Australian feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti’s (2013) The Posthuman. I had also been chatting a lot recently with my friend Kagan, who argues that the revolution will only come through a change in consciousness, and that this change is immanent. These dense theoretical pieces chimed with these conversations, but also with so many ideas, issues and sentiments that Russell Brand has recently expressed through his more public platform. I thought I would share these ideas here, examining parallels, and ultimately use this example as a means turn on its head the idea that academic work needs to aim to have ‘impact.’

Russell Brand – in his article and discussion on Newsnight – called for a revolution. He eloquently describes the apathy and despondency which characterises the mass of the British public, and he advocates that we don’t even bother to vote for ‘the lazy duplicitous servants of the City,’ for it is ‘trivial,’ ‘tokenistic’, and ‘tacit complicity’ in a failed system. He highlights the corruption of the current political system and its inability to deal with the environmental destruction and disgusting lack of social justice that is taking place on a global scale. In this scenario, Brand claims that humanity now faces a choice: ‘oblivion or utopia’. He claims that our current religious ideologies- derived from ‘dead desert myths’- are old, tired, throwbacks and are unworkable in facing the challenges of today. But he is also harshly critical of the atheist Left and he advocates a new kind of spiritualism which acknowledges our connections to each other and the planet. As Okwonga put it ‘he is addressing inequality of opportunity and the stale centrism of mainstream politics in a manner that is compelling, accessible, entertaining and crucial. His is a voice that resonates with many’. But what is his message and how does this resonate with contemporary social theory?

Braidotti opens her book The Posthuman with a remarkably similar sentiment to Brand, that we have come to the ‘end of ideologies’ where ‘the choice between sustainability and extinction frame the horizon of our shared future’ (2013, p7), and that we need a ‘qualitative shift in our thinking about what exactly is the basic unit of common reference for our species, our polity and our relationship to the other inhabitants of this planet’ (ibid). She advocates a move towards a vision of a ‘posthuman humanity for the global era, […] a life we share with multiple others here and now’ (p11).  Braidotti, like Brand proclaims to Paxman, is looking for an ‘alternative that might be of service to humanity’.

Brand claims we are bound for oblivion or utopia. In No Intentions? Utopian theory after the future Garforth writes about ‘rethinking’ utopia. Specifically in this article she sets out to challenge the notion of utopia as an end point, as a ‘grand plan’, but to (re)think of utopia as a process, as embedded in and diffused through the everyday. At the same time, in arguing for a posthuman understanding Braidotti calls for a ‘process oriented vision of the subject’(p190).  So we need to think of ourselves as always becoming, in process, but also to think of the future as simultaneously always becoming, but already here. So bear with me.

Riots, the politics of disruption and having a fucking laugh 

The English Riots of 2011, but also other forms of protest, form a running thread throughout Brand’s narrative. Not only does he defend the Riots -as we do in our forthcoming Special Issue in Sociological Research Online– as a fundamentally political act, but he celebrates such forms of semi-spontaneous action and activism as something that is exciting and invigorating. He delights in the idea of protest, and calls for ‘the disruption of normalcy’ and being ‘excited by the chaos’.

In parallel, Garforth calls for the exploration of utopia in terms of ‘subversive, critical, or transgressive currents at work within the logics of the present spatial order’. She defines utopia as ‘zones of otherness that challenge, contest and subvert the spaces of the now and the everyday’ (p14).  In this sense, riots and protest, can be seen as a form of utopia. She describes utopia as a ‘bottom up’, and as ‘a momentary possibility of transgression, difference, of liberation, conjured up from the mundane materials to hand in the experience of the everyday, from unsettling language and jarring social spaces’ (p16).  We can see this ‘bottom up’ utopia conjured from the jarring of social spaces in Reclaim the Streets’ reclamation of social and public space, in the Riots’ reclamation of high street stores, in the unsettling language of the ninety nine percent, and the mundane yet hugely disruptive tent city of Occupy. These movements, like Garforth’s utopia, work ‘against the grain’ to ‘shatter taken-for-granted discourses and representational systems,’ not in some future but ‘in the here and now’.

Garforth, like Brand, claims that in realising utopia we should value anything that is ‘disruptive, unsettling, subversive, dynamic’. This is something our edited collection hopes to explore further. Seeing activism, resistance and resilience glimmer in the cracks as well as the solid buildings of the world (Goffman, 1961), exploring the ‘space offs’ (De Lauretis, 1987) – the blind spots outside of the frame – contributions proposed for this collection explore how we protest, and how we revolt, in and through the everyday and extraordinary. Exploring the potential in troubling normativity and queering the taken for granted, we examine the politics of disruption as a fertile site for change. In Brand’s words: let us ‘beam at the spectacle of disruption’.

Garforth highlights that ‘there are abundant spaces of alterity always already at work within the social world’, and while these can be found in obvious protest, with a capital P, these ‘spaces of alterity’ are everywhere. In my research on social mixing, for example, I explore the idea of the disruption and transgression of the straightjacket of identity categories as a politics of resistance, and explore the ways in which those who don’t ‘fit’ the normative gender/sexuality/race/class order might provide the opportunity for alternative value systems outside of the mainstream.

Garforth writes about how Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope (1986) saw the glimmer of emancipatory utopian ideas and desires everywhere- even in daydreaming and wishful thinking. She describes utopianism as a kind of ‘dreaming forward’. She also dwells on Ben Anderson’s work who theorises people’s use of recorded music as ‘enacting partial, situated and sensual moments of utopian hope’ (p10). Indeed, in the social revolution of the 1960s, popular music formed an embodied, almost spiritual experience as a catalyst for change.

Utopia is fundamentally affective. The way in which Brand writes about what he ‘loves’ about protest: ‘the chanting, the bristling, the ripped up paving stones, the galloping police horses,’ highlights the affective, embodied, sensuous rhythmic experiences, that ‘flicked a switch’ in him, just like the haunting, melancholic yet euphoric music of Rodriguez in the 1970s ‘flicked a switch’ for the youth of Apartheid South Africa.

This attention to affect connects with Brand’s insistence that the revolution is not to be ‘serious,’ but ‘fun.’   In the article, Brand tells an anecdote about being admonished for his playful participation in the Reclaim the Streets protests, whilst working for MTV (being told ‘this is serious you cunt’).  He suggests that the organised Left are too ‘serious’ and moralistic’ and are actually an impediment to the revolution. Brand claims that the Left’s blinkered focus on solemnity alienates the people. But also in this blinkered focus on the purposive: on a design, the plan, the blueprint for a socialist future, the Left is perhaps looking in the wrong place. Perhaps revolution is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away, to misquote Tim Minchin. Garforth, citing Michael Gardiner, and in spooky harmony with Brand, asks that we ‘step away from the intentional in utopianism (the purposive, the serious, the rational, the ernest) and emphasise the trivial, the playful and the carnivalesque as sources of utopianism’ (p16). Indeed Braidotti claims that a posthuman humanity involves ‘combining critique with creativity,’ (p11) to find new ways to connect and understand ourselves as connected.

As Brand argues, social movements should not lack ‘razzmatazz,’ ‘first and foremost [we] want to have a fucking laugh.’ In the posthuman future, Braidotti argues that we will understand ‘desire as plenitude and not as lack’ (p190). Utopia is not about an uptight abstinence, self-flagellation and wearing hair shirts, nor about deferred gratification for some distant future goals. The orgasm is always coming rather than a climax to (maybe) be achieved.

Brand calls that we ‘revolt in whatever way we want,’ be a ‘nuisance,’ like Billy Connolly, and  ‘with spontaneity like the London rioters’, or without ‘invitation or intention’ like his participation in Reclaim the Streets. These are the ‘critical emancipatory moments of daily life’ that Garforth writes about. Utopia without intentions, not a planned utopia (with a design, aims, a blue print) but an accidental utopia. This, rather than ‘programmes, plans and intentions, is the fertile seed bed of an everyday utopianism’(Garforth, p16).

As ex-Socialist Worker member Richard Seymour claimed in Laurie Penny’s article on Brocialism in the Guardian, a fundamental problem with the Left is that efforts too often involve, ‘people in positions of unexamined privilege try[ing] to create a new world which looks rather too much like the old one’.

However, is this idea – of revolt and resistance through the everyday – too utopian, a naïve fantasy? Natasha Lennard in her article about Brand in Salon, points out that ‘[a]t the same time radical ideas might spread and resonate across mainstream and pop media platforms (and thus provide the potential for rupture), these ideas and images are recuperated immediately into capital.’  Indeed my research on social mixing also raises the idea of the appropriation and prosthetisation (Skeggs, 2004) of alternative identity positions, highlighting the problem of how spaces of resistance are still structured by power relations.

Interconnection, interdependence, posthumanity and love 

Together in the Sahara

However something that Brand, Braidotti, Garforth and even Skeggs, all search for in their work is an alternative to this capitalist, individualist, selfish paradigm. Brand, as many sociologists- too many to cite, points out ‘there is little satisfaction to be gained from enthroning and enshrining ourselves as individuals’. He, like Braidotti, claims ‘our connection to one another and planet must be prioritised’. Braidotti argues that in the posthuman world, ‘an enlarged sense of community,’ ‘community bonding’ (p11) and ‘an enlarged sense of connection between self and others’ including the ‘non-human or earth others’ is the way forward (p190). Like Braidotti, Brand, through his beautiful prose juxtaposed with horrific images of the slums of Kiberia and the glitter of Givenchy, demonstrates just how interdependent we are.

Protest, utopia, and the posthuman world is about love and positivity, not about the negative. As Richard Seymour sagely notes about the (problems of factionism in the) Left, ‘you can build broad alliances, but only if you genuinely incorporate the interests of everyone who is part of that alliance’.  Braidotti argues: ‘I see the posthuman turn as an amazing opportunity to decide together what and who we are capable of becoming, and a unique opportunity for humanity to reinvent itself affirmatively, through creativity, and empowering ethical relations, and not only negatively, through vulnerability and fear. It is a chance to identify opportunities for resistance and empowerment on a planetary scale’ (p195).

The pursuit of an everyday utopia – through music, through protest, through mixed friendships, through resisting being categorised, through having a fucking laugh, ‘manifests sensuous, inarticulate desires and impulses that cannot be fully colonised by rational systems’ (Gardiner, in Garforth p16). Such practices of resistance outside of the mainstream, outside of rational systems, outside of the (capitalist) symbolic economy of exchange, must involve an alternate ‘value compass’ (Skeggs and Loveday, 2012), premised on ‘use-value’ (ibid), care and love.

Garforth claims: ‘utopian affect and feeling, promise (or threaten) to disrupt or reorganise from the bottom up who we think we are’. ‘Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interest me’ says Brand. He claims that ‘we need a unifying and inclusive ideology’ as ‘atheism and materialism atomise us’ and ‘inhibit cooperation.’ ‘We have to be inclusive of everyone, to recognise our similarities are more important than our differences and that we have an immediate ecological imperative.’ Consciousness itself must change. Brand writes about previous cultures – Pagan, Celtic, Norse – having a more fundamental connection with the earth and the other millions of interdependent species that inhabit it. These communitarian societies, he argues, are where the Left came from – they were socialist, egalitarian and integrated – and are perhaps where the Left needs to relearn itself; in posthuman times, this is ‘an opportunity for the left to return to its vital, virile, vigorous origins’.

Searching for Sugarman, accidental utopia and on (not) having the answers 

Braidotti, like Brand, is tired of the current paradigm. She is bemused at our lack of ability as social theorists to move beyond it, to peer beyond it, to imagine an alternative. At the end of her book she asks: ‘are we going to be able to catch up with our posthuman selves, or shall we continue to linger in a theoretical and imaginative state of jet-lag in relation to our lived environment?’ (p197). Brand chides the old ideologies of organised World religions, and global capitalism, as some kind of Windows 95: out-dated operating systems1 that no one in their right mind would still be working on. So too, Braidotti criticises the ability of social science as we currently know it, to provide the answers. She condemns ‘our faith in theory as a tool to apprehend and represent reality’ (p6). Singing in unison, Brand, Braidotti and Garforth proclaim that we need fundamentally to change. ‘We need to change the way we think’ (Brand), ‘we need to learn to think differently about ourselves’ (Braidotti p11), and rethinking utopia ‘can help us rethink who we think we are.’ (Garforth p19).

But how do we do this? Paxman in his Newsnight interview mocked Brand for his inability – or refusal – to propose an alternative (to which Brand retorted ‘well I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy’). But Braidotti cogently argues: ‘like all people living in an age of transition, we are not always lucid or clear about where we are going, or even capable of explaining what exactly is happening around us.’ Garforth, citing Gardiner, argues that we should be able to ‘critique the status quo without projecting a full-blown image of what a future society should look like’. We need to ‘seek transformative social change within the hidden recesses of daily life itself’ – as we argue in our book proposal – within the ‘cracks’ or the ‘space offs’.

Perhaps Garforth’s ‘utopia without intentions’ is the key. At the end of her article, Garforth asks ‘does utopia happen (to us) rather than being something we mean or intend?’ (p25)  She suggests Utopia might ‘happen anyway,’ ‘whatever the intentions of individual subjects or collective actors’ (p11).  Indeed as Brand asserted to Paxman: ‘there is going to be revolution. This is going to happen. I ain’t got a flicker of doubt: this is the end. This is time to wake up.’ Garforth claims that ‘future-oriented utopian intention is the heart of the problem. It is precisely our plans for – or designs on – the future that threaten to colonise its potential openness and otherness with a replication of the logic of the present’ (p15).  In 1979, the American sociologist Theda Skocpol, conducting a comparative study of the revolutions in France, Russia and China, argued that ‘revolutions are not made, they come’.  The English Riots are testament to this, they were not planned, designed or made, but they came.

Just as how, unbeknownst to him, the haunting, melancholic, euphoric music of a working class Mexican labourer from Detroit could inspire the youth of South Africa, ‘sparking’ change, and catalysing the overthrow of the Apartheid regime – the revolution may come, may ‘impact’, from where we least expect it and without us trying too hard.

Door, Essaouria, Morocco.

 

Footnotes

*This article presents the notion of riots and protest as ‘fun’ and ‘having a fucking laugh’. This idea is harder to swallow these days.

Photographs have been added to the original article. The text remains unaltered.

Photos are the author’s own.

Russell Brand now podcasts regularly at #UnderTheSkin

 

The angry locust and other stories

I got an email the other day for an academic conference session called Intimate Ethnographies in Multispecies Lifeworlds.  This important discussion is due to be held next spring at the American Association of Geographers conference in Denver, Colorado, and is being organised by Katie Gillespie and Yamini Narayanan. ‘What on earth is that?’, some of you ask, including me. OK, so let us break it down. Ethnography is when you study a population through living with them. And intimate ethnographies must be when you do that in very close quarters. So, for example, an intimate ethnography of a ‘tribe’ or ‘subculture’ might involve studying them through living with them, perhaps living in the same house, living in the same room even, and conducting their daily routines with them, as they do. OK, next- multispecies lifeworlds–  here is the idea that we are studying the lives, experiences, thoughts and feelings – ways of being- of not just humans, but other species. And not just one species, but more than one, and our coexistence.

I read on with interest. The session organisers show a particular interest in auto-ethnography.  Which, yes, you have it, means an ethnography of yourself, or your life(world). ‘Ooh’, I thought excitedly, ‘that’s what I am doing’. I always felt I could not help but be a sociologist in my own life. This is why I started to blog. I had not thought of my writing as auto-ethnographic before, but it is slowly becoming that way.

Then I saw the phrase ‘attention to uneven power structures’ and I thought again, that’s my interest. In any given situation I study, I am always interested in who has power and who does not, and how that plays out. Katie and Yamini go on to claim that ‘Centering lives lived in close relation, in multispecies lifeworlds, allows for a politicization of these relationships and the contexts in which they unfold’. I am aware that almost all of our perspectives give precedence and power to humans over any other animals, as a base assumption. Animals are considered to be secondary, second-class, ‘sub’ human. The way we construct knowledge- or the way we think about, and understand, ourselves and our time on this planet -is inherently ‘species-ist.’ So, these geographers call for us to think more about humans’ relationship, coexistence, symbiosis with the animal world, and the multiple species in it, and to apply a political lens to this study. They invite us to ask: who is the ‘underdog’ here? What are the ‘power structures’? How are they uneven or biased in favour of humans? What are the consequences of this? How can we think differently about this?

One of the specific questions they ask researchers to tackle is:
– What might an intimate ethnography look like with those animals closest to us—for instance, how might we think about ethnographies of those with whom we share our lives, our homes?

Well, here goes.

An intimate ethnography of human-insect-vanlife-life-worlds

Sikia, Halkidiki. Mount Olympus at background. Author’s own photo.

Living in a campervan for months on end, moving from place to place, means having a very different relationship with the natural environment (and the creatures in it) than you do living in a house. This experience has made me think a lot, specifically, about the insect world and our relationship to it, because, living in a van in the woods; on the beach; in a field; up a mountain; by a stream, we come into contact with various, and multiple, insects on a regular basis. When I lived and worked in London, when I reflect back on it, I rarely saw or thought about an insect*.

Last winter I read a feature article in the New York Times called The Insect Apocalypse Is Here. This piece summarised scientists’ incredibly worrying hypotheses that overall insect numbers are decreasing rapidly, year on year, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Reading this article, has also informed my shifting relationship with insects. The journalist invites us to cast our minds back to when we were young (presumably assuming a readership born in the 1970s and ’80s), where he tells the story of a science teacher who recalls when he was a child, driving (and cycling) through the summer countryside in his home town in Denmark and the number of bugs striking the windshield (or his face!) was in the thousands. But today, that same experience, might be merely tens of insects. If that. If I cast my mind back, when I was a kid, living in a house in a semi-rural area of Southern England, this used to involve co-existing, to some extent, with various insects. In the autumn the spiders would come in. Big ones, small ones, hairy ones, ginger ones. There was always one in the bath, or one in the corner of the room. In the summer there were the flies that would invariably bother you in the kitchen; when you were trying to cook; the moths that would come in around the porch light at dusk; the ‘daddy long legs’ who would dive bomb you in the hall way; the dragon flies around the pond. Towards the end of my time in London- a large but relatively green metropolis- when I think about it, I rarely encountered insects in my home (except the bed bugs that had been ‘imported from India’, but that is another story all together).

Living in a van, however, it was necessary to coexist with various insect populations. Everywhere we traveled, there would always be some kind of insect population making themselves known to us, getting in our space, as we got in theirs. Interestingly we tended to be aware of one type of insect species at a time, as if they had different geographies, or they took it in turns to taunt us. We had bees in the mountains of Fethiye; mosquitos on the beach on the Albanian Riviera; beetles in the forest in Alanya; locusts in the grasslands in Halkidiki; sandfleas at the harbour of Andriake; flies in the farmlands in Urfa; scorpions in the Sahara dessert. As we failed to install any mosquito screens in our campervan and the temperature inside in summer was often 40 degrees or more, the open windows and roof vents meant there was no getting away from the insects. We had to at least try to get along with them. In the beginning we would spray the campervan with insecticide (indeed some campsites we stayed on sprayed the entire campsite with insecticide), but we soon learnt this was futile: it didn’t seem to remove the insects, only kill some of them and then more would appear. So we realised this was unsustainable, not to say inhumane, and we began to try to tolerate them.

Bugs and Beetles, by Naomi Adams

Another thing I became very aware of -in addition to the different insect geographies- was that they tended to have quite discernible daily rhythms too. Cicadas would sing all day, and then would instantly go to sleep, or just stop talking, at dusk**; flies would be attracted by food so would come at meal times; bees by water when we were washing; mosquitoes would come at dusk, feed from us over the period of about an hour, and then retreat, leaving us in peace for the night. Only when there was a plague of mosquitoes (i.e. problematically large numbers) did they continue to bother us through the night. Well, of course, I guess it makes sense: if there were more of them, then it would take longer for each to get their turn to feed. I began to change my attitude towards insects, as I began to have a relationship with them, as I began to understand them, and their needs. I read that mosquitoes take your blood to feed their babies, and I thought ‘oh well, in that case, fair enough’. Wouldn’t you do anything to feed your baby? We tried to avoid being bitten, through natural means- covering up with long clothing at dusk; covering my son’s bed with netting; burning citronella; sleeping in the path of a fan, and if there was a real plague of them we would cover ourselves in DEET to repel the worst of them. However, as time went on, I began to tell myself to just let them be, let them do their thing, let them feed. Just try to ignore the itch. It would be gone or replaced by a different itch in a few days. This was just the cycle of life.

The ants of Andalucia

When we were in Spain it rained. And rained. And an extended family of ants congregated in our shower. Our first reaction was horror and we wanted rid of them- they were in our space. But my partner, who is Muslim, said ‘in Islam you are not supposed to kill ants’. So we didn’t. We soon realised they came in when it was raining hard, they had their meeting (literally convening in a circle) and then when the rain stopped they would go back outside, and we were able to shower. Phew. This brings a new meaning to flat sharing.

An ant conference in Spain, author’s own photo

The Fethiye bees

That is not to say that I was not challenged by the presence of some insects on various occasions. Flying beetles dive-bombing through the roof lights at dusk was quite panic-making, and we were not prepared to share our space with these blighters.  The ‘Fethiye bees’ was another strange encounter. When traveling in southern Turkey we parked at an idyllic spot in the forest in the mountains above Butterfly Valley (interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, said to be lacking in butterflies now). We planned to cook dinner while our son played outside. I went outside to do some washing up in a bucket while my partner was cooking, but by the time I had finished the washing up I had about ten bees around me. When I finished the washing up they swarmed the tap, the washing up sponge and the pile of wet gravel where I had poured my washing up water. ‘OK, they are just thirsty’ I said to myself. But gradually they started to surround the campervan, sitting on the van and coming inside. They weren’t just thirsty, they were watching us. Then my son came inside. This was strange because he never came inside voluntarily. When I asked him why he had come inside he said dismissively: ‘oh, just too many bees’. He had left all his toys on the mound where he was playing and when I went to collect them, the toys were crawling with bees. I looked around. The bees were nowhere else to be seen. Only on our belongings. This was the point at which I said ‘OK we are leaving.’ The way in which they were surrounding us, watching us, taking interest in us, marked unusual behaviour for me. This seemed bizarre behaviour for bees: usually we coexist, but they show little interest in us. Perhaps we had disturbed their nest? But they were not stinging us, not threatening, just showing too much interest. This was too eerie. We packed up and drove off, driving fifty miles down the mountain and out of the forest into an urbanised area. That was better: just species like us here.

Tawny mining bee, photo by Penny Metal

The angry locust

This takes me to my last story, or encounter: the angry locust***. In Greece we spent nearly a month camping in abandoned campsites on the peninsula of Halkidiki. The economic downturn had obviously affected tourism and holiday-making and more than one campsite had closed-down in this region. We parked up on the beach near Sikia, in one such abandoned campsite, in the long, wild grass, under the shade of a tree and started to assemble our camp. We were aware of the noise of ‘cicadas’, in the long grass, which was a noise we were accustomed to. However as we settled in our camp we realised it wasn’t multiple ‘locust’ sounds coming from all around, but the noise was localised: it was coming from only one patch of grass. It was incredibly loud, and incessant and very close to our camp. We peered into the long grass and could not believe our eyes. The creature we saw was almost the size of a small rodent. But it was an insect. And it seemed to be shouting at the top of its ‘voice’. When we peered closer it would stop, but as soon as we moved away it started again. We sat for a while outside, but he disturbed our peace. We decided to go inside and have a nap, but the noise continued and seemed to get closer. We couldn’t sleep. Then I thought I heard another sound, this time coming from the opposite side of the van. I went out to investigate and indeed there seemed to be a response of sorts, coming from long grass the other side of the van. ‘I think we are in his patch’. I said. ‘We are parked in the way between him and his lady, and he’s not happy’. As the noise got louder and angrier, again, we agreed to move. We packed up the van and drove about fifty yards away to another pitch and parked up. We then walked slowly and quietly back to the pitch with the locust and indeed the noise had stopped. Whatever the matter was, he was quiet now. One nil to the locust.

Meadow grasshopper, Lewes, England, photo by Penny Metal

All power to the insects

These are trivial stories of encounters with insects but I want to draw attention to the power structures, as Katie and Yamini ask us to do. For all-too-long we humans have wielded power over insects (and indeed most other species), with little concern for their welfare, or even concern for how much we need them. As the article about the insect apocalypse points out, we are dependent on insect populations to pollinate our crops, to process our waste, as a food source for other animals. Without them we will starve and be neck deep in shit. But our attitude for far too long has been: Not In My Back Yard. As we swat that swatter; spray that Raid; pump that insecticide; jet that pesticide; spread that Rose Clear; shake that ant power, little by little, we contribute to this holocaust. Van-life has fundamentally changed that relationship for me. I draw the line at flying beetles in my hair, but other than that, live and let live. I learned to live with insects, to the extent that, now I am in a house in the city again, I miss them. Not only should we learn to coexist with insects, but, as with the bees; the mosquitoes; the ants; the angry (or horny?) locust in my stories, we should be curbing and adapting our lives, our behaviour around theirs: we should be allowing them to take the stage. Because one day we might miss them.

Clockwork Bubble Bee, by Naomi Adams

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Insect Trivia:

Crickets, locusts, grasshoppers and cicada: what is the difference?
Locusts are a type of grasshopper, both categorised as ‘Acridoidea family’ in the order ‘Orthoptera’. Crickets are also of the Orthoptera order, but crickets are typically wingless, and they are omnivorous: eating plants, smaller insects and larvae. Locusts and grasshoppers look similar to each other, they both have wings, and are both herbivores but locusts differ from grasshoppers in their ability to swarm. These insects make a sound by rubbing their wings together and this is called stridulation. Cicadas on the other hand, are ‘true bugs’ from the order Hemiptera, they are dark, stout insects with large heads and transparent wings. They look more like a beetle.  They come in two major variations: annual cicadas, and periodical cicadas. Periodical cicadas (only sited in North America) are often commonly referred to as the ’17 year locust.’  They spend 13 to 17 years as ‘nymphs’ living under ground, feeding from the juices of plant roots, before emerging- in number- in spring, when the soil reaches exactly 64 degrees Fahrenheit, when they climb up trees, shed their brown nymph skin and emerge as a cicada (most commonly black, with red eyes and orange wing veins). The male cicadas, the loudest insect around, then ‘sing’ by producing a sound from a pair of built-in drums called tymbals at the base of their abdomens. The females are attracted by the sound and after mating the females lay eggs burrowed in the twigs of the tree, before dying. The eggs then fall to the ground and hatch into nymphs who burrow into the ground, where they will then live for around 17 years. There is nothing trivial about that.

Photographs featured:

Feature photographs are courtesy of Penny Metal and Naomi Adams. Penny Metal is an artist who loves and photographs insects. She has published a book consisting of photographs of the insects of Warwick Gardens, a small park in Peckham ,South London. You can see more of her photos and buy the book here.  Naomi Adams is an artist and illustrator. Her relief pictures of bugs and beetles made from minute, found-objects such as beads, earrings and clock parts, can be bought here.

Footnotes

* Such is the rarity, that the beauty of the urban insect has attracted the attention of South London artist and photographer Penny Metal, who has published a book of photographs on these creatures, and our encounters with them.

** The sound Cicadas make is actually made by their abdomen not their mouth so technically they are not ‘talking,’ but I am anthropomorphising for dramatic effect.

***After researching, it is most likely it was a Cicada that we saw, not a locust, but humans often confuse the two.

Ten things to value about Morocco

View across the river, Ait Benhaddou

Last year we spent nearly three months in Morocco, on a road trip in our Mercedes 609 camper. My partner and I, and our two year old son, traveled to some of the most remote towns and villages (see our travel map for where we’ve been), met some of the warmest, most welcoming people and saw some of the most stunning scenery we have seen in our life. I began to feel quite settled and accustomed to the way of life in this ‘developing world,’ North African, Muslim country.

Of course, there were some things we missed from the UK (high quality plumbing and drainage being one key thing).  And of course, this is another one of those glib checklists which doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Moroccan life.  A main proviso is: I recognise Morocco is a huge and diverse country and we didn’t visit many ‘modern’ cities, so really I am writing about rural Morocco. Nevertheless here are ten things, in no particular order, I celebrate from our time there.

A convenience store in Merzouga, Sahara

1. Supermarkets are rare.

I do not just mean huge hypermarkets, I mean small supermarkets as well. Outside of the modern cities there were neither. We became accustomed to seeking out ‘market day’ where we would buy all our fresh fruit and vegetables and eggs for the week, occasionally fish at the fish market if we were near the coast, or meat at the butchers. Other goods we needed we bought at local grocery stores, hardware stores and so on, as and when we needed them. This way of shopping is not as convenient as the big-once-a-week-supermarket-shop we have been used to. Indeed when we saw a supermarket it would ignite a kind of ‘guilty pleasures’ excitement in us. However, we reflected on how supermarkets really distance you from the produce you are buying and the processes that got it there. We came to  value shopping locally, and this had other environmental benefits which I go on to detail.

Dry goods sold self service in a supermarket

2. Packaging was minimal and hence packaging waste was minimal.

As supermarkets were few and far between, packing waste was much less ubiquitous. Having banned plastic bags way back in 2016, if you asked for a bag in Morocco it was paper, or made of recycled fibres. Fruit and veg bought in the market were never wrapped in plastic but bought loose, put in brown paper bags or you are expected to bring your own bag. Even eggs were sold with no packaging: you had to  bring your own egg box. Often if you bought rice, pasta or pulses from local stores they were stored in large containers and decanted. Even the supermarkets, when you found one, sold dry goods like this. As a consequence of being ‘poor’, in rural Morocco, ‘consumption’ was minimal, but therefore waste was minimal. ‘Poor’ rural Moroccans lived a life that did not involve buying ‘stuff’ every day. To generate waste you have to consume and discard. Moroccans we met did not consume pre-packaged fruit juices or fizzy drinks but drank tea, water or homemade fruit water. Food waste was minimal and would compost down to nothing. There was also more re-use. Any glass bottles sold were collected and returned for refilling.  When things broke in the home/ on the campsite they were fixed, not replaced with a new bit of plastic and the old lump of plastic discarded. Indeed, at the local market, stalls could be found selling secondhand necessities: tools, haberdashery, hardware, bricolage, clothes, toys and parts of toys that the West discards. Even toilet behaviour is more ecological, washing with water, minimising toilet tissue waste. As a tourist in this landscape I was painfully aware of my levels of consumption and the waste I generated. The packaging generated from a city supermarket shop; a new item of clothing or plastic toy; a cup of take-out coffee; a thousand wet wipes used for all sins (at that time we realised we had a ‘packet a day habit,’ that we have now gladly beaten); all added up to make a shameful pile in the bin. A bin that otherwise contained tea leaves and an old knob of bread, which, actually, a dog would eat anyway. For locals, municipal garbage collection appeared to be sparse anyway, so it was imperative to generate as a little waste as possible.  Tourists were the point at which waste became unmanageable. As we spent our time travelling and wild camping, we realised that campsites were essentially places we paid to take our waste.

Hiking with a guide in Dades gorge

3. Everyone is a parent: ‘the village raises the child’.

This African proverb was very much in force in Morocco. It took me a long time to relax and trust in the notion, but everywhere we went in Morocco my toddler was safe and looked after. Children were of central importance and this was obvious. As soon as he stepped in public, a young child would be the centre of everyone’s attention. Men, women and other children were hard-wired to notice a young child in public, consider his welfare, and collectively take responsibility for his safety. If our son was in danger of running into the traffic others would save him; if we were hiking and our energies were waning, someone would carry him; if he was misbehaved in someone’s shop or restaurant they would reprimand him; when he was climbing in the park the older children helped him; when he smiled everyone would praise him. I realised how much weight is taken off your shoulders if a community around you is parenting your child, rather than feeling like their daily upbringing is solely your responsibility.

Mercedes Varios on market day in Moulay Idriss, Morocco

4. Every other vehicle is a Mercedes Vario.

I’ve thrown this in because our campervan is a Mercedes Vario (an old 609d), and we are fans of these trusty German-built machines. The Vario is the work-horse of Morocco. It is used to transport goods for market day; it is everyone’s work van; it is used on farms; it is the public bus. In fact, it took us weeks to understand: why did everyone keep waving at us on the roadside? They thought we were a bus and were hailing us down.
Fetching water from the spring

5. Spring water is free, provided by pump at the roadside, in the town or village.

In the UK you find the occasional public water tap, but in rural Morocco fresh spring water was available free everywhere (as we have found in Greece and Turkey also). This is most likely because many people would not have piped water to their homes (and the piped water wouldn’t be drinking water anyway). Living in a van and needing access to water to fill our water tank, and to drink, made us hyper-aware of public access to water wherever we went. In some countries we found the only way to access water was to pay to stay on a campsite, or to ask at a petrol station. In some places in Europe the petrol stations removed their tap connections so people couldn’t access the water without permission. This made me think about how we arrived at this state of affairs where water is a private commodity and access to it is restricted? And how we just let this happen. Access to drinking water is a basic human right. We look at the woman fetching water from the pump in the village and label this ‘backward’ or underdeveloped. And of course, if you have to walk miles to the pump that is a real problem, and of course, if the water is contaminated, that is a problem, but there is nothing backward about a system where you collect water at the source. There is something quite backward about collecting water; storing it (where consequently it gets dirty); spending money and energy resources cleaning it in huge treatment works (to make it drinkable but basically stripping it of any health benefits); then piping it to every home, so that people can then defacate in it and then go to the supermarket and buy mineral water from a corporation that has essentially stolen the access to natural spring in the mountain nearby. We should have free access to local spring water at the source, and we should harvest rain water locally for washing and sanitation.
The view from our camper in the Rif mountains (no that’s not a painting)

6. Epic scenery.

The landscape of Morocco was absolutely, mind-blowingly stunning. As we traveled the country we saw every kind of landscape imaginable from the waterfalls of the Rif mountains in the north; to the snowy central Atlas mountains; Dades and Todgha gorges; the cliff formations and beaches of the west coast; the Sahara dessert of the south and east. Some landscapes  were truly otherworldly too (or only the stuff of movies) such as the Mars-like landscapes of Tissint and Tata; the dry desert ocean beds of Es Sfalat; the Precambian granite rocks of Tafraoute; the blue city Chefchaouen and the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. In fact, Ouarzazate is home to several film studios and many science fiction, fantasy, historical films and series are filmed here, including Star Wars, Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
Pates de Singes, Dades valley

7. Alcohol was available but not culturally ubiquitous.

In my circles, everyone I know wishes they drank less alcohol. But living in the UK, this is easier said than done, as alcohol is a part of the culture of socialising. When I lived and worked in London, ‘going for a drink’ peppered the working week, and dominated the weekend, as every other shop-front was a bar or pub in my gentrified London neighbourhood. Even with kids, ‘going for a drink’ was a likely occurrence, made possible by pubs with ‘beer gardens’, and even indoor playrooms. This didn’t feel particularly healthy, nor sustainable, physically or financially. In my circles there were strategies to reduce the amount of alcohol you consume, either drinking a soft drink in the pub while everyone else is ‘getting pissed’; or alternatively, not leaving the house. “I’m trying not to drink” was a common reason given for reclusivity. How weird is that? That you have to lock yourself away and avoid the company of friends in order to avoid the temptation of drinking too much alcohol or getting in debt? Another strategy involves moving to a Muslim country where socialising does not revolve around alcohol. In rural Morocco there were no pubs or bars just cafes and restaurants. You could buy alcohol in the big supermarkets in the big cities, and somewhere in rural areas if you asked around. Some campsites we stayed on served alcohol in the restaurant but it wasn’t offered to you, you had to ask for it. But “what do they do for a night out?” I hear you ask? People eat together, and just sit around for hours, just being in each other’s company. Cafes were a hub for communal meetings, and occupying elderly people who sat together watching the world go by. Cafes did not seem concerned with making a profit out of each sale. In Morocco there were no advertisements for this alco-pop or that cold beer; no irresistible ‘3 for 2’ special offers in the supermarket; no wine on the menu (“oh go on then, just the one”); no pub on every corner, the familiar smell of beer, the sound of chinking glasses and drunken laughter beckoning you in, stumbling out at closing time (“not again, 2am!?”). In Morocco I had the odd drink (like, I mean, maybe twice in three months).  It was a genuine treat, and the rest of the time alcohol was just not there, and not a part of our day.  At first I felt like something was missing (because it is so culturally ingrained), but I did not miss how alcohol is pushed on you in the UK.
Truck with hayload, Ait Benhaddou

8. Rules are made to be broken.

There is something quite freeing about Morocco in the sense that the enforcement of rules is fairly lax. Our particular experience of this- being on a road trip- related to traffic and the rules of the road. Yeah yeah, the UK has rules to keep us safe. But it is tedious isn’t it? In Morocco you can drive about without your seat belt on, you can hang off the bus; sit on the roof or sit on the back of a truck; you can park wherever; you can drive the wrong way up the motorway slip road; you can squeeze your whole family on a motorcycle; you can climb the ruins that say ‘closed’. You can make your own decision as to the danger. Ah, freedom. Yes, perhaps the roads are less safe, but there is something stifling and oppressive about the iron fist that governs UK traffic laws, and increasingly governs public space in general.
Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech

9. Collective worship.

Morocco is a Muslim country and you are gently reminded of this five times a day when hearing the call to prayer from the mosque. Friday prayer- around lunchtime on Friday- is the weekly occasion to attend mosque and pray collectively. Lots of businesses and shops close on Friday lunchtime for this purpose. However, when we stayed on a campsite on the edge of a small town, Ounagha, just outside Essaouira, we had the most moving experience. Ounagha was a non-descript town that had grown up around a crossroads. The Mosque was placed at the cross roads and the market took place outside the mosque. Other than this was a small parade of shops, a garage, a school, and a campsite. We happened to be in the market in the town at the time of Friday prayer, and when the call sounded, everyone (ok, mostly men) slowly packed up what they were doing and started to walk towards the mosque. Shops shut their doors, market traders covered their wares with a cloth, cars stopped and people got out. The mosque was so full that around thirty people prayed on the floor outside.  I am not a religious person but there was something powerful, wholesome and connected about this collective worship and the way in which this collective-coming-together presided over everything else, not least commerce.
Snowy roadside rest stop, High Atlas Mountains

10. Inviting motorway services.

Roadside rest stops were often grand, involving far more than a fuel station, toilet and shop selling junk food, as we are used to in Europe. Perhaps harking back to the days of the caravan routes, Moroccan motorway services often included an extravagant (but usually empty) hotel with swimming pool; almost always a butcher; a restaurant with outdoor seating area and children’s park and invariably a palatial but empty ballroom with a few old men sitting in it drinking tea. Motorway services were not just places where you stopped on a journey, but a destination, especially at the weekend where every man and his family seemed to go to eat in the restaurant, play in the park or even dance in the ball room perhaps?

Fossil hunting in Es Sfalat

Finding value in Morocco.

Morocco is classed as a ‘developing’ country, but many of the things I write about on this list- many of the things we valued about Morocco- exist precisely because it was not ‘developed’ in the way that western-advanced-capitalist countries have developed. That is not to romanticise poverty. Many people in rural Morocco are poor and desperate. Everywhere we went, Moroccans we met admired Turkey and looked to Tayip Erdogan as a their role model. Turkey perhaps represents a dream, a hope, an idea of a modern, functioning, progressive Muslim way of life.  Whether Turkey really represents that is another blog post (or thesis), but one rhetorical question we can ask here is, do Moroccans need a version of western capitalist democracy? Do they need reality television; media jobs; supermarkets; divorce; secularism; malls; bottled water; shrink wrapped vegetables; fizzy drinks; pubs; drug problems; CCTV; outsourced childcare; old people’s homes; motorways; 5G; manicured lawns? No. They want their children to be safe, healthy, cared for by those around them, and have enough to eat. Let us try to imagine, what this could look like. Is there is a chance for Morocco, a hope: that there is potential to ‘develop’ in a more environmentally sustainable way, but also a way that is more sustainable in terms of community and sociality?
Looking for refuge in Amtdi

Interested to know more about Morocco now? 

You can do your own research but here is a start. Morocco is a North African Muslim majority country. Islam came to the region following the Arab ‘conquests’ around 670 AD. The Ottoman Empire governed parts of Morocco for several centuries, after which it was colonised by France (and Spain). The ‘country’ gained independence in 1956, and it is now a (dynastic) monarchy ruled by King Mohamed VI. Islam is the official religion of the state, with apparently 99% of the population adhering to the faith. The main languages are Arabic, French and Berber (who were more recently recognised as having indigenous cultural rights). Characterised by extensive rural ‘poverty’ (by objective and subjective standards), Morocco is now classified as a ‘lower middle income’ country by the World Bank (alongside countries like Tunisia, Pakistan, Vietnam), brought about by strong economic growth. However, such countries are embedded in global value chains, featuring  cheap labour, precarious work and polarising inequality. One of Morocco’s biggest industries is agriculture and it is a major exporter to the European Union (citrus fruits, vegetables and fish), but the sustainability of this industry is under threat by climate change. A lesser known contender in the Arab Spring, the Moroccan government ‘successfully’ quashed ‘pro-democracy’ protests in 2011 with police violence, media black outs and empty promises of reform. With youth voter turn out at 10% in the 2016 elections, Moroccan youth appear to remain dissatisfied, disillusioned, searching.

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All photographs are our own. And while I wrote this article, I am always in debt to the wonderful insights of my partner, Kagan.

Croatia, Tuna ‘ranching’ and the state of our oceans

A 10 minute read. Just read it. Its important.

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This summer we travelled the Mediterranean coast in our campervan, from Italy through to Turkey. We spent three weeks driving through the pristine resorts of the Croatian coast, island-hopping some of the many beautiful, ‘unspoilt’ islands (as much as you can ‘hop’ in a 6 tonne beast of a vehicle). We spent a long weekend camping on the stunning, 45km-long remote island of Dugi Otok, which took two hours to reach by ferry. First, we visited a campsite situated in the pine forest at one tip of the island, where our son played in the calm shallow waters and rock pools and daytrippers crowded the beach until 3pm before it became ‘ours’ again.

img_4498We then explored the island to find some remote spots to camp. The island had one main road that stretched the whole length of the island like a spine, where you could see down to the coast to the east and to the west. Smaller roads led off to a handful of fishing (yachting/holidaying) villages dotted along the coast, and some tracks went to private dwellings or secret beaches. Google Earth helped us find the latter, where a dirt road ran down a steep hill to a clearing in the trees which led to a stretch of pebble beach overlooking a small uninhabited island. Apart from sharing with a few ‘regulars’ who frequented the beach, we had the place to ourselves: we felt like Robinson Crusoe. We relaxed in the makeshift driftwood structures left by prior holiday-makers and swam in the warm crystal clear waters, slightly disappointed that we never saw any sea life: no fish, no crustaceans, no jelly fish, no seaweed, even.

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On the last day we were driving the main road to the opposite end of the island, when to the east we spotted what looked like a series of circular pens lined with floats, being pulled slowly by small boats. My partner excitedly and optimistically said ‘I think I know what that is: I read about this guy who has designed a machine that scours the surface of the ocean cleaning up the plastic waste. I think it’s that’. Indeed oceancleanup.com tells you all about this excellent project funded by crowd-sourcing. But I read it only starts trials in the Pacific in 2018, not in the Mediterranean. I continued to research what these ocean structures might be and then I found it: it was most likely a tuna ‘ranch.’ According to Greenpeace, in such outfits, young wild tuna are caught and put into cages, which are moved around the Med, while the tuna are fattened-up, fed on other wild-caught fish. Not only is this quite depressing on an animal-rights basis, it’s also unsustainable as apparently it takes up to 20 kilograms of bait to produce just one kilogram of tuna. The bait is made from other fish species, predominantly caught elsewhere. Moreover, the bait brought from elsewhere can introduce disease[1]; and fish farming often uses large amounts of chemicals, damaging the ecosystem.

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While some ‘aquaculture’ farms claim to be responsible and sustainable, the tuna ranched here off Croatia is said to be Blue Fin, hailed by Greenpeace as endangered.  Such ranches are thought to be responsible for the depleted stocks of Blue Fin, caught where it is spawned, off the coast of Lybia. First started in Croatia in 1997 there are now said to be 69 tuna ranching operations in the Med with over 1700 flotillas, with Malta now growing a substantial industry.

Blue Fin ranching here, is a multi-billion pound business enabled by lax regulation, corrupt governments, bent and greedy fishing corporations headed by tuna ‘barons’ and a predominantly Japanese market (consuming 80% of the worlds supply). According to a seven-month inquiry into tuna ranching by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), fishermen, ranchers, and traders have engaged in widespread fraud and negligence (involving off the books sales and under-reporting catches). Since 2008, under pressure from environmentalists and scientists, Japanese officials made their first big refusal of Blue Fin imports, citing dubious paperwork by suppliers. It is unclear how this is impacting on the scale of these ranches today. A 2017 article in the Croatia Times celebrates the ‘abundance’ of delicious tuna coming from the Adriatic seas around Croatia, with no mention of tuna ranches, leaving the reader to believe that there is natural abundance. In fact, ‘aquaculture’ or fish farms now produce nearly half of the total of fish for human consumption, but the environmental degradation caused (vs. the high energy consumption of offshore farms) means we cannot tell ourselves that any aquaculture is sustainable.

I then began to research the Mediterranean Sea further, trying to reconcile our experience of a picturesque beach holiday with what I know about pollution and over-fishing. I found that the Mediterranean Sea is one of the most polluted oceans of the world (only third to the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic). According to the United Nations Environment Program, there is 650 million tons of sewage and a combined 230,000 tons of mineral oil, mercury, lead and phosphates dumped into the Mediterranean Sea each year.  One third of the world’s shipping passes through the Mediterranean and between them, ships discharge between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes of crude oil each year. Coastal discharges from industry and cities also result in high concentrations of mercury, cadmium, zinc, lead and untreated sewage. In 2007, a litre of Mediterranean seawater contained 10g of petrochemicals.

That is before we even talk about plastic.  According to the WWF, the Atlantic and Pacific ‘garbage patches’ receive the most attention, but scientists claim the Mediterranean is the region most threatened by plastic pollution, partly because it is semi-enclosed, it acts as a trap for plastics. Tourists are thought to be responsible for annual spikes of 40% in plastic pollution in the Med each summer. In 2015 a clean up project began across some of the Mediterranean countries which involves volunteers picking up plastic waste on the beaches (that which hasn’t already been consumed by sea life and sea birds). However, the campaign itself recognised that the level of plastic waste in the Med is beyond critical. The website claims that in certain places the volume of micro-plastic in the water exceeds that of plankton

Now we are in Istanbul in Turkey my son and I walk along the Bosphorus, enjoying spotting the shoals of fish in the shallow waters.  Fishing season has begun and everyday, since the first of September, I have watched the barrage of purse-seine vessels with huge circular nets sitting in the Bosphorus channel, day and night, radar technology hunting down Palamut (Skipjack tuna). My father-in-law used to fish here with his small fishing boat and sell his catch in the market. There used to be a huge variety of fish here, big and small, but since the 1970s he said the larger purse-seine vessels have increased in number and now there are only really Palamut left, even those, it is suspected, are being caught too young [i]. Currently no purse-seine fishing operation is rated as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

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Last week the WWF launched its bi-annual report Living Planet, its most heartbreaking claim being that in the last 50 years we have seen an overall decline of 60% in global population sizes of vertebrate species. The level and speed of this holocaust is truly shameful. Moreover, I am gravely reminded of the scientific prediction of the collapse of every species of wild-caught seafood by 2050, if current trends continue, and serious intervention is not taken into the clean up and protection of our oceans.  At first watching the fishing on the Bosphorous Straight felt quaint, but now I am kept awake at night by the constant drone of the ship’s motors, and this unfolding horror story.

It is blinkered, foolish even to travel this beautiful planet and not to be cognizant of the abuse we have inflicted, and continue to inflict. We don’t need sci-fi and zombie horror to dream up an imaginary dystopia, we are already there. We are already dead.


But what can I do?

Industry is way out of control, but the very least we can do is:

  1. Don’t buy fish.
  2. Don’t eat it. Unless you caught it yourself with a fishing rod.
  3. Support Greenpeace’s campaign for ocean sanctuaries
  4. Join direct action groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Enough is enough.
  5. Don’t buy single use plastic. Ever. If you can help it.
  6. Take direct action against plastic packaging
  7. Donate to the Ocean Clean-up

Footnotes

[i] Apparently the European tuna farming industry buys more than 200,000 tons of mostly frozen and untreated fish annually from the North Atlantic, West Africa and South America. From http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat53/sub340/item2188.html accessed 5th Nov 2018, written in 2008 (updated 2012) by Jeffrey Hays, derived from newspaper sources.

[ii] I found a Turkish project to monitor Palamut fishing in the Bosphorus 2012-15: Palamutlar Nerede? But the website palamutlarnerede.org is no longer. The only reference to it I can find now is on their sponsor’s page, only written in Turkish: https://www.metro-tr.com/deger-yaratan-projeler/palamutlar-nerede. Maybe you can help me with more information about the outcome of this project, or similar endeavours?

All photographs are the author’s own.

Toddlers and screens: is the tablet computer a tool of the devil?

I’m unsatisfied with the information in blog posts and articles about the dangers and damage of too much ‘screen use’ by young kids. Having bought my toddler his own tablet (a decision that was made because he nearly broke my rather more expensive Notebook), I have first hand experience of managing a toddler’s (personal) screen use. While this turned out to be a traumatic experience which resulted in us ditching the tablet entirely*, I still wasn’t satisfied with the articles that seem to circulate which hail the irreversible damage of screens to children, and call for an outright ban in the early years. As a sociologist, to me this screams ‘moral panic’: when television first took off there were similar panics about the damage it caused. These scares are almost always over-sensationalised. But at the same time we do need to be aware of how these technologies are slowly but surely changing the way we relate to one another. Recent confessions from producers of social media that they deliberately design usage to manipulate dopamine levels are worrying**, as are reports that young people spend more time interacting on their smart phones than face to face. There are definitely things to fear from increased use of technologically mediated interaction. But technology is here to stay. So let’s talk about how we use it for good, and not what it does to us. Here’s six points I want to share which hopefully move us forward from the screen-good-or-bad debates:

1. Of course kids are gonna get fat and ill if they play on screens all day and don’t exercise or interact with anyone. The need for balance is obvious, let’s move beyond that

2. It’s the message that’s important not the medium, right? Are they using the screen to play ‘educational’ games, or watch endless ‘trashy’ cartoons? Or perhaps worse: YouTube videos of someone with painted nails endlessly opening kinder eggs (why!?). My son went through a stage where he was only interested in watching YouTube videos of someone pushing toy tractors through sand. This freaked us out. But as soon as he showed interest in following a narrative we steered him away from this and towards short films and series suitable for his age. For a while he kept asking for ‘tractors’ and we just changed the subject and he got over it (and moved on).

3. Children are dynamic and constantly changing. So are our family circumstances. If your toddler is spending a lot of time on their screen, this doesn’t mean it will continue in that vein forever. Our son was particularly difficult to handle around 22 months before he could really talk. Plus at that point we were trying to pack to go travelling (in a bus that wasn’t finished) and things were extremely stressful for us. We found the screen really useful at this point in our lives – a lifesaver in fact- because it would occupy him completely for at least an hour sometimes. Now he’s a bit older, and is beginning to occupy himself with imaginary play, and we are a bit less stressed as a family, we don’t need to use it so much as a babysitter.***

4. There is a fundamental difference between a personal screen and a shared TV in a shared space. This didn’t occur to me until it was too late, because we didn’t have a TV. For those who don’t have a TV (which is increasingly common) a personal screen seems an obvious choice for the kids but I found this a mistake that was then hard to go back on. The TV convenes the members in the room, while the personal screen isolate them. I try to watch programmes and play games with my toddler on his screen, but, mimicking me perhaps, he pulls it away, preferably watching alone. The TV just does not behave in this way. It’s something you gather round to watch and interact with together, for better or worse. From my experience I would say try and avoid giving toddlers a personal screen if you can. Or if you do get them a personal screen don’t tell them it’s theirs so they don’t get too attached to it, or have that sense of ownership. This keeps you more in control, to change the dynamic when you need to.

5. Screen-use is part of a social environment that you create for your family, and one in which you set the example. We thought a lot about what we fed our son at dinner time, but seemed more lax when it came to the diet of the mind, which seems ridiculous for a sociologist but what you don’t realise is how much you have to change your habits and ‘diet’ to help them. Put restrictions on use, or make a routine, that fits with when you need the screen most: ‘you can only go on the screen when mum’s making dinner’, or ‘no screens after dinner in the evening’. For example. Basically try to lay down rules or conventions that you want to form into healthy screen use that they take with them into later life. (And lets practice what we preach, innit. Obviously if you sit on your screen all evening, they will want to mimic.)

6.’Open ended browsing’ (such as surfing YouTube) seems to me to be the most problematic screen behaviour for my son as a toddler. He learnt how to surf YouTube within a few days of being introduced to it. We know ourselves how addictive surfing the net is, with the infinite information, pages to view, posts to scroll, pictures to swipe. I had a friend who went on Facebook every evening and he was unable to sign off until he had scrolled through every new post until he reached the posts from the day before. Crazy right, but we all can recognise our own similar negative screen behaviour like this. With my son, open ended browsing seemed to re-enforce his already short attention span: he would never watch something until the end, tending to jump from one YouTube video to another in the space of a few minutes. This was something we wanted to discourage from becoming habitual. Also open-ended browsing meant he could technically be watching something totally unsuitable. Although the feed generally filled with videos aimed at toddlers, this didn’t mean I approved of them. pseudo-advertising (aswell as actual blatant advertising) was rife, be it for branded toys or branded candy. But there is also something quite dark about some of the content, much of it being set to the same happy hardcore mix of ‘Old MacDonald’ and ‘Mommy Finger’ tunes (which makes you feel completely manic after a while); features disembodied adult hands playing with toys or unwrapping candy; in hyper-synthetic landscapes. Plus the feed is often hijacked by a channel called ‘bad baby’ which features older kids miming babies doing mischievous things involving gaffa tape. That’s not to mention that the content completely reinforces western capitalist norms, unchallenged. I guess it’s possible to restrict the YouTube feed to only videos that you have vetted and selected, but if you haven’t then I would avoid it entirely in the early years.

To conclude, I think to answer my title question, is the tablet computer a tool of the devil, with regards to young children, the answer is yes, it has the real potential to be, but you can circumvent the devils tactics with some attention to the details. With close supervision and restrictions you can hopefully use it to your ends, and not fall into the manipulation.

In post script, I think it’s important to ask why we are blaming screens when we should be blaming the conditions that we have to live in that mean that we need to use them as a babysitter (because that is basically what they are): long hours of paid work, plus housework that all takes place in isolated or nuclear or single parent families with no, or little, daily support networks. What we can try to do is to organise more co-parenting where groups of parents or family members get together and parent several children together, sharing the labour of parenting, housework and even the takings from paid work. But that’s another blog post.

Post post script, I’ve since had further dealings with kids-oriented YouTube videos and I have more to say about their sinister nature. Another blog post to follow.

*Oh no, we thought it was gone for good, how we were mistaken…

**I’m not going to hyperlink it, look it up yourself if you care (dare?) enough to go down this road

***Oh ho. The dynamic has shifted again and it creeps back in. You have to click ‘follow’ to hear what happened next.

House-dwelling makes us lazy?

in defense of vanlife

I didn’t start out as an advocate of ‘van-life’. I thought it was going to be a sacrifice: a means to an end; something to endure to be able to travel. I was dreading the confinement of three of us in a small space and the lack of a decent shower or bath. But the longer we spend on the road, and the more we switch from van to house and back to van, the more I appreciate van-life rather than house-dwelling.

Since we have been on the road we tend to travel for a month or so, then stay put for a few weeks. We often stay on campsite but sometimes we rent a holiday-let if we can find one for a good price. We have rented a studio in the Basque Country, a little one-bed holiday flat in Armacao de Pera in the Algarve and a two-bed flat with garden in Los Caños de Meca in Andalucia. We rent a house or flat for a number of reasons: so we can settle and get to know a local area and community there a bit more intimately, to stretch out a bit and sleep in a longer bed (our camper bed is only 5ft 8 inches long), so our toddler can run around in a contained area (our camper is ten square metres in TOTAL) and so we can download films and books on the internet.

And for these things, living in a house is great. But we have found house-dwelling makes us lazy.

We find we very quickly switch between the different ways of living. In a house we fall into:
– constantly doing laundry, even if it’s not really dirty we just wash it anyway
– Leaving the washing up to pile up
– Not tidying up: there’s plenty of space not to
– Staying inside even if it’s quite nice out
– Watching TV and surfing the net excessively, including our toddler
– Going to bed too late

Whereas with van-life we tend to:
-do laundry once a fortnight when we find a campsite with a machine
-Wash up everything after each meal and put it all away- there is nowhere to put dirty dishes down and not enough space to carry spares
– put everything away after its use. Everything -toys, books, clothes, food -has its place. The space becomes claustrophobic if it’s untidy
– Go outside to stretch out to explore at least twice a day if not more
– Never watch TV: we don’t have one
– Surf the net only when we can access WiFi  and go to bed much earlier
– Our son goes on his screen much less: maybe less than an hour a day

There is something that feels more wholesome and satisfying about this way of life, on a basic level.

Van-life amplifies our experience of the weather, which we feel connects us with the natural environment more. We are much more aware of the weather and move with it rather than stay indoors and ignore it. Of course a lot of rain is challenging with a toddler who wants to go outside but generally the weather even within one day is more of a mixed bag. Because the van is a small space we go out much more regularly to stretch out. Even if it’s cold we just wrap up. We watch the clouds and the forecast and plan our day around it. And while it can get difficult and claustrophobic if our son is cooped up in the van too long, he’s much happier and therefore more manageable inside when he is going outside most of the day. We find we are much more in-tune with the dawn and dusk also. While we do have electric lights we feel the sunrise and sunset more acutely. We get up with the sunrise in the morning and currently the sun sets at 7, and our son goes to bed in his bunk not long after. We watch one of our downloaded films, read or do some research on the net for a bit, but soon follow, as the temperature drops and the bed at the other end of the bus looks more and more inviting. We find there is no space or inclination for slobbing around half-watching-TV-whilst-inanely-scrolling-Facebook, as we tend to in a house.

The van also amplifies our experience of daily survival tasks such as parenting, cooking and cleaning. While we feel like we are constantly cleaning and tidying when we are on the road, there is a sense of achievement as it feels like the tasks are productive: a focus rather than a distraction from something else that’s got to be done (see my blog post about ‘work’).img_3866

Perhaps there is also something about travelling, rather than being stationary where there is always something new- people, scenery, customs- that keeps us active, and makes it impossible to laze about.

I just re-read this post and I can see people reading it thinking, ‘get a job, then house-dwelling does not make you lazy.’ I guess what I am saying is house-dwelling makes us comfortable. But there is a danger in this comfort, in that you can become lazy and passive. Whether doing paid work or not. What I appreciate about van-life is being out of that comfort zone which feels more connected and more free.

Survival or specialisation?

what do we want for the next generation?

As I was growing up, I never had to do any chores or anything to help in the home. No washing up, no laundry, no cleaning, no cooking. The most I did was take my plate to the kitchen when I’d finished my dinner. At my dad’s house he expected us to offer to wash up (that’s polite) but we rarely actually did it. My mum’s reasoning was that she wanted us to focus on our school homework, so she didn’t want us to be distracted with chores. My mum’s goal was for us to have a good education and for that to give us the best opportunities in life. Her approach certainly worked for these purposes: my sister and I both worked and studied hard and got excellent academic results. I guess what my mum’s approach enabled us to do was to specialise – it has enabled us both to access good careers but neither of us can cook and we are embarrassingly undomesticated. Furthermore, my partner says if I was left to fend for myself in the wild I wouldn’t last two minutes. He’s right.

In the context of 1980s feminism and rising possibilities for social mobility, my mum’s focus on her daughter’s education was an understandable goal. But what are our goals now, today, in 2018? Do we want our son to specialise on his one career? My partner certainly doesn’t want that. He wants our son to be self-sufficient; an ‘all-rounder’; multi-skilled; survivalist.

Is not the era of specialisation dead anyway? There are no more ‘jobs for life’. Most people, we are told, will have three or four different careers in their lifetime. We are told we need to be ‘Entrepreneurial’ – adaptable, flexible. As a parent, what’s the best way to achieve that for a child? Should we be raising our children to be flexible to the needs of capitalism; to be able to adapt and survive in an ever-changing technologically advancing job market? Or do we want to bring up our children to be able to survive, to know themselves, to feed their basic needs, when all this melts away?img_3694

In my research on the London middle classes, we found parents who talked about ‘global travel’ as a kind of ‘cultural capital’ for their kids, an experience that they can ‘cash in’ for a university place or a job. In my experience, the middle classes always talk in this way: searching for ways to capitalise on something. (This is not their fault but the system). I hate to think of our travels with our son in this instrumental way. And I know my partner doesn’t. But I am burdened with a sociological knowledge and understanding, which is just that: a burden, that prevents you from just being. How can you know ‘game theory’ and not apply it, right?

So I guess it’s what you do with that knowledge. We want to think beyond the instrumental. To provide our children with the (multi) skills to be of value in the community, rather than be of value to an employer; to share skills rather than compete for them. When we are deciding what to teach the next generation, what to guide them to study, we want to always hold in mind ‘what is of value to the community?’ (I.e. all of us) rather than ‘what gets them ahead in the rat race?’.