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.


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.



*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


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.


* 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.