Sunday, August 21, 2016

Blather's end?

Somewhat to my own amazement, I discover I have said everything I currently have to say about humans and nature, identity and interconnectedness. I thought I could blather indefinitely, but apparently not.

I am therefore announcing a temporary cease-blather. As with all cease-blathers, it's unclear if it will hold. If you want to be notified should blather break out once more, please register by email on the widget to the right.

Thank you for listening thus far.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The lacy city

 In China Mieville's fascinating The city and the city, two cities occupy the same space: tightly enmeshed physically, but powerfully separated culturally with different cultures, economies, building styles, fashions and language. Citizens avoid seeing things occuring in the other city even though they might be on the same street. It's called 'unseeing'. People pass through a border control point to see a place the other city, even though the route they travel might take them back along the same roads to a building right next door to their starting point.

It sounds like wildest invention, but it's not so different to life in an ordinary European city. I live in Southampton, but I haven't walked or even driven down every street. Not even every street in my area. I follow a fairly small set of routes to and from work, my son's school, particular shops, friends' houses, the stations. My Southampton is a lacy little subset of the city as a whole, reflecting my lifestyle and tendencies like a kind of fingerprint. It will be just as unique - as would anyone's, especially those with less regular lives.

As well as my sub-Southampton physically, I live culturally in a sub-Southampton. I work with and live near people who generally share my outlook, I connect digitally with people who share my interests. My father, who worked in social housing for many years and felt passionately about homelessness, has made our homeless population very visible to me - but many people 'unsee' those in doorways with cardboard notices. Other people unsee other groups. I myself try to unsee unnervingly raucous groups of teenagers in the street, trusting that they will elect to unsee me in return as I scuttle middle-agedly by.

It seems harmless, but in the city riots five years ago, the rioters were almost certainly throwing their stones across an invisible division into another city, one that shared a name and a location, but wasn't theirs.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The heat of the moment

The heat of the moment
I've gone off 'living in the moment'. It is true that the past cannot be changed and the future cannot be controlled. Yes, we must beware of letting hopes, fears, regrets and wistfulness dominate the foreground of our experience. However, and it's a big however, there isn't time in the brevity of the moment, to consider. In the moment there is only immediate reaction, instinct, the heat.

It is time which tells. Time tells because deep thought is slow, no matter how fast events are. We need to digest experience and ideas, mull things over. We need time to catch ourselves out in the errors of perception and judgement which are part of normal fallible human consciousness. We need to mull over and re-examine things. And because of this, we simply can't think properly about everything ourselves, there isn't time.

This is what we need experts for. We need to outsource the time to become well-informed about some difficult issues, so that we can focus on others. I don't think we are 'tired of experts': reviews, curated selections and price comparison sites abound. The trouble is that our global connectivity means we are called upon to develop to too many opinions too quickly.

As we struggle with the overload, we are drawn to hyper-real clarity: soundbites, slogans, shortcuts. We don't want the ifs and buts, the complexities - indeed we suspect them to be the mark of the weasel, instead of honest respect for a difficult issue.

Processing deep thoughts takes time, but life is fast and getting faster. The amount of the world to which each of us is exposed is huge and getting huger. If we want to stop people managing the overload by radically and dangerously oversimplifying issues, we really need experts. And time.

Monday, June 27, 2016


I'm ashamed: ashamed of our collective decision to leave the EU and even more of the "debate" we had in the run-up, so full of hate and lies. But I'm personally most ashamed that I spent last Friday bitterly bad-mouthing democracy. As if the majority of people doing the voting were somehow unworthy because they didn't see it my way.

The problem (now I've come back to my senses) is not of course with democracy. It is with time and attention poverty. I realised this when I found myself thinking Monday would be a bit late to post a reaction to Friday's news. As if the passing of three days would render that seismic moment old news. As if we should be on to the next thing now: the plummeting pound, the admissions of misinformation, the petition for a new referendum.

And these things do need thinking about. But we still need to mull over the big moments, and slowly digest them; getting beyond initial reactions. The problem is not that people are selfish, ignorant, or desperate (though some are), the problem is that people have no time to think, and indeed there is little cultural value for coming to a considered conclusion. Unsustainable claims about releasing funds or regaining some mythical state of unilateral sovereignty could only ever make much impact in a competition between sound-bites. In a considered, thoughtful discussion, they rapidly unravel.

The trouble with promoting everyone's right to be heard, is that we devalue expertise and have to do our own thoughtful research, on everything. Constantly breaking news, social media updates and incoming mail need prioritising for scarce attention. The process of choosing what we attend to in itself takes up attention. News media have to fight for our attention, and turn up the drama leaving us punch-drunk.

The pre-referendum media coverage was weeks long, but not weeks deep. Much of it was a series of stand-alone, off-the-peg, mini-stances - to be consumed in a moment. Vivid, attention-grabbing elements which implied the underlying situation was similarly simple and clear cut.

Nowhere is this fast-news, fast-opinion culture more dangerous than when making long term decisions, with decades of implications hanging on them. I have no idea how to slow down discussion to the point where an actual conversation develops instead of just waving a series of emblematic events across a battleground. I do know that on this occasion, we did it wrong and we need to work out how to do this kind of thing better in future.

And it will take a lot of thought.

UPDATE: or, possibly, just this: (well, you never know). Find out more about the campaign at

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Wild Life Manifesto

Are you enjoying #30DaysWild? It's the Wildlife Trusts' annual festival of noticing and celebrating the wild world around you. If you haven't come across it yet, check it out. There's an outbreak of birds, bees and beetles on Twitter, not to mention daisy-chains, bare toes and grubby grins.

Towards the end of the campaign page (where they are encouraging the doubters) they point out that "the chances are that nature is already there, but you haven't noticed it yet." This, for me, is the whole heart and centre of the point. Noticing it. Of course nature is already there - you are nature, the yeast and wheat in your breakfast toast is nature - regardless of how many flour improvers were added as well. Indeed, if a bird's nest is nature, then your house is nature too.

... and so is the toaster. And so is the internet. And just like that all meaning has drained away from words like 'nature' and 'wild'. What is it that we really mean by 'nature', by 'wild' if huge, air-conditioned termite mounds are nature, but my garden shed isn't. If the fox which poos in my garden is, but my neighbour's cat, which also poos in my garden, isn't.

We mean not-human. We mean unmanaged-by-humans. We mean 'other' to our human-built worlds. And we often sink into our human-built worlds,  getting lost, like Narcissus, in our own reflections. There's probably nothing more essential to our health, and that of the planet, than looking away: noticing and celebrating the other - and how much of it there is everywhere.

After 30 days wild, let's make every day wild. Nature is all around you. In your house, in your fridge, in you. In fact, you are part of it, and it's not other at all.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mystery, imagination and facts

I do love a fact. I love knowing the names of things: being able to recognise them again and give them meaning. Long contrails in a blue sky tell me the rain is coming; a May sky full of screaming tells me the swifts are back from Africa. It makes the world more familiar, more predictable: my safe little kingdom.

But facts are also the opposite of that. They make the world bigger. The vague green fuzz at the roadside resolves into detail and meaning: apple blossom imply cores tossed out of windows and unexpected roses suggest visiting finches, blackbirds or thrushes.

And then the detail and meaning unfurls into more questions: who threw the apple, was it did they hope it would grow, or just want to get rid of it? Did the bird have it's meal of rose hip in a garden or from a hedgerow? Does it nest in this same verge? Plenty to muse and wonder about now. It's as if the fact gives us a mental foothold in the fuzz - making it real enough to enter and explore.

We humans are prodigiously, thrillingly, ingenious, but still just creatures. Temporary ripples in evolution, here for a brief moment in the unrolling story of the universe. However much we enquire into the world, we can never understand Everything. Facts always come with a new little mystery or two in their arms. There's always more context, more relationship, more implications. The world is a bottomless lucky dip of things to know.

Isn't that great? We can utterly surrender to curiosity, seeking answers for ever and ever without any danger of running out of questions. And the world will still have plenty of mystery space for playing around with imagination.

Facts are the cake you can really have, and eat. And still leave room for madey-uppey dessert.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Another kind of outdoors

Online: we might spend much of our time there, but - particularly as parents - we complain that it is isolating and that it can lead to obesity, although this is equally true of spending all day reading books (which I did entirely uncriticised throughout my childhood). We say it leads to shortened concentration span, but does it? Perhaps our childhoods were boring enough to teach patience naturally. My son spends just as long building a castle in Minecraft as he does in Lego - longer, because he won't run out of the blocks he needs to extend it. 

We have done silly online quizzes as a family and ended up learning something new in the conversations they prompted. We race each other across a virtual moon on our separate mobile phones, shrieking and complaining about unfair tactics. All these activities are just as unifying as playing a board game which nobody means when they complain about 'gaming'.

The unacknowledged fear at the heart of anti-online parenting is that the confines of the home are no longer confines. A door as if to Narnia has opened up in your child's bedroom, and witches as well as fauns can come through. Anxiety about house-bound, nature-disconnected children bundles up nicely with this into a single mission to get your children off the computer and into the woods, where they can have a proper childhood making dens and mud pies and getting into the kind of trouble that calls for nurses and first aid, instead of police officers and therapy.

However, through that online door is a genuinely magical world. The world of ideas. A world of other people's minds which was previously only available to small groups of intellectuals living in particular times and places. The internet offers a kind of digital outdoors. Like the real outdoors it has discovery, wonder and danger all jumbled up together.

It's not safe for unattended children, so attend them: teach them digital bushcraft. But it's not a bad place just because it's not a safe place. Online is just like the real outdoors, except that you don't get physical exercise, or fresh air. So you might want to make sure they get into the woods too.