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cordes sur ciel

There’s a lot of talk about the increasing strain on health services, something I’ve addressed here.

One of things that bothers me about these discussions is the assumption that increasing funding and resources to the health care system will result in a healthier population, which will, in turn, reduce the demand on the health services. This has never happened. And it’s not likely to happen.
The health of a population mainly comes down to how we live, not to the medicines we swallow or how quickly we can get an operation. Let me just clarify that I’m not arguing against more resources and funds for the health service, we need that to improve them. It’s just that this isn’t a way to create a healthier population and so reduce demand.
To create a healthier population we need to invest in what creates better lives. Better lives for as many people as we can.
There are many ways to do this. But let’s start with housing. Because decent housing, warm, weather-proof, houses with enough living space, clean, running water, an efficient sanitation system, and affordable, reliable power, is a foundation for healthier lives.
Would anyone argue otherwise?
If people are homeless, or living in insanitary, unsafe, overcrowded conditions, then they are more likely to get sick – both in the short term, with infections, and in the longer terms, with chronic, inflammatory conditions. I’m not going to list references here. Google these issues for yourself. But I am going to claim that adequate shelter is a necessary first step to better health for a population.

There are many factors and problems to consider here, but I just want to focus on one – waste – the number of abandoned and/or unused dwellings in every town and city.
When I think about this I can’t help also becoming aware of “high streets” full of empty, abandoned shops and offices. So, let’s take that into consideration too. Because when the town centres empty of commerce they aren’t only dying, depressing and, possibly, dangerous, but they represent a huge waste of opportunity for people to work and live together. We need shops, offices, workshops, cafés, restaurants, exhibition and performance venues, to have a healthy community. It’s no good just building lots of apartments in streets which are devoid of the possibilities for people to meet, share, and work together.

Take a walk around the streets where you live, both the residential streets where you dwell, and the town streets you visit most often for shops, offices, cafés, restaurants, and so on.
How many properties are sitting closed up and seemingly abandoned?
At the same time, are there homeless people in your locality? The homeless might be obvious sitting or lying on the pavements, in the doorways of closed shops, or they might be invisible to you, struggling to get by in bedsits, guest houses or hostels. What about decent housing? Is there anyone living in sub-standard, even unsafe properties? Is there anyone housed in overcrowded conditions with landlords maximising their income by minimising the personal living space of their tenants? Are the streets of your town vibrant, filled with people socialising and satisfying their daily needs and desires, for material , social and cultural goods?

I’m asking because it seems to me that it’s very common to find so many shops, offices and houses that look abandoned that a whole area feels either unsafe or unhealthy. The French have a word for it – désertification…..where a once vibrant locality becomes a desert. What could we do to turn this around? Here’s one idea.

A policy of compulsory purchase and leasing.

What if the local authority, the Council, or the Commune, had the right to compulsorily purchase, in its area of jurisdiction, any property which was uninhabited or unused for at least five years? What if all such properties could be compulsorily purchased for the current independent valuation price, then leased out to new tenants?
Residential properties could be rented out to those on housing benefit, paid for directly from the tenants’ housing benefit, instead of the current situation where these benefits go straight into the pockets of private landlords. Some properties could also be rented at commercial rates to either individuals or groups of individuals, encouraging a healthy social mix in the community.
Additionally some could be offered for sale, either directly at market rates, or using co-ownership schemes, where part of each month’s rent is allocated towards the final purchase of the property by the tenants. In a co-ownership scheme, an additional idea could be to agree a contract of improvement and renovations of the properties which would be paid for by the initial rental payments. For example, a property requiring £50,000 of work, and valued at a monthly rental of £1000, could have the works paid for by the first 50 rental payments.
Commercial properties, shops, workshops and offices could be offered rent-free for new tenant businesses. Instead of paying rent, the Council or Commune could be empowered to collect the VAT generated by these businesses, keeping that element of taxation for local use, instead of it disappearing into national funds.
The income streams to the councils from the housing benefits, domestic rents, co-ownership contracts, sales and locally ring-fenced VAT could then be used to make more compulsory purchases.
I’m sure somebody else will be able to take this idea and refine it considerably, but the basic idea is to favour circulation of property and wealth in the local economy and environment, instead of the current picture of stasis and decline.
Community associations, and co-operatives could be included in such schemes. In other words, it’s not just something for independent businesses and entrepreneurs, but something which could also encourage community led activities. Workshops, recycling services, training and education courses, as well as libraries, galleries, theatres and music venues.

Bringing life back to our existing communities by prioritising decent housing for everyone and supporting the daily opportunities for people to live, work and play together, would be a good beginning, if we want healthier populations who have less need of health services.

I’ll explore some other factors in later articles, including food, education and inequality. But maybe you’d like to share your own ideas? If you do, on your blog, your youtube channel, your instagram feed, or wherever you express yourself, please let me know. I’ll include links to your ideas in my posts.

Consensus democracy

Last time I was in Paris I saw these beautiful, thought-provoking photographs hung on the fence around the Jardins du Luxembourg. They were displayed as part of an attempt to raise public awareness about Climate Change.
This photo, which I took, of a woman walking past them made me think about powerlessness. It’s one thing to become aware of a problem like Climate Change, but it’s another to feel that you can do much about it personally. Actually, I’m sure lots of people will tell you all kinds of things you can do, from reducing the waste you produce, to recycling more, cycling more, or eating less meat. And who’s to say these aren’t good things to do? But, the thing is, global problems need human beings to work together to tackle them. Individual, isolated actions might contribute to bigger changes, but they’re not enough. Perhaps it’s one of the defining characterises of being human – that ability to work together. We are brilliant at making connections, and having huge effects by collaborating. It can be easy to forget that, but just pause for a moment and think how many other human beings have contributed something towards you being able to sit down today and eat a meal. Start with what’s in front of you and see how many connections you can imagine. You can’t know them all, of course, but you can imagine them. Include the table and chairs, the plates and cutlery, the food…..just follow as many of the threads as you can. We don’t live alone. In isolation. We didn’t evolve that way.
At the level of society we humans have tried a huge number of ways of organising ourselves. One of those ways is democracy. We elect a small number of us and give them responsibility to solve certain problems, enact certain laws, develop particular policies. Democracy is designed to hold that minority accountable.
You could argue that one of the objectives of democracy is to achieve the greatest possible consensus in a population for a particular set of laws, practices, limits and freedoms in a society.
Sadly, many of the Western democracies run a rather simplistic “winner takes all” variety of democracy. The person elected, or the policy voted for, in such a system usually only has the support of a minority of the population.
If a representative is elected by less than 50% of the electorate, then, at best, they are representing only that minority. It is common in Western democracies for representatives to gain their positions with around only a third of their electorates.
69% of the electorate voted in the UK 2017, General Election, with 42% of those who voted, voting Conservative and 40% Labour. Under this system the Conservatives “won” with only 29% of the electorate voting for them. Maybe it’s easier to see this with the raw numbers. At the time, the UK electorate was 46,843,896 people, 13,636,684 of them voted Conservative, 12,877,918 voted Labour.
You can easily do your own calculations for the country you live in. I’d be surprised if the general conclusion wasn’t much the same. This isn’t a way to achieve the greatest amount of agreement amongst the greatest number of people. It’s a way to enable an elite of winners to wield power over the majority of the population.
It gets worse. Within parliaments there is a similar skewing of democracy towards rule by minority. When all that is required is a “simple majority” for a policy or law in a parliament, then the emphasis is on competition rather than co-operation. The “Brady amendment” in the House of Commons won by 317 votes to 301. A simple win, but is it reasonable to then refer to this as “the clear majority of MPs”? Or to say that “Parliament has expressed a clear wish for…..”?
Referendums are very poor tools for the creation of consensus, or even broad support. A simple binary choice referendum that achieves just over 50% in favour, and just under 50% against, is more likely to increase division than spread consensus. In the British parliament, on the issue of Brexit, the Leave side claims complete authority to act without reference to anyone on the other side, despite a referendum result that delivered only a small majority in favour amongst those who voted, and a significant minority amongst the electorate as a whole. 51.9% voted Leave, 48.1% Remain, and turnout was 72.2%. That means 17,410,742 out of 46,500,001 people voted Leave, yet politicians call that the “Will of The People”. Which begs the question – “which people”? Not the electorate, just the minority who voted Leave.

Is it any wonder that ordinary people have lost faith in this particular flavour of democracy? This loss of faith is commonly cited as one of the reasons for the rise of populism. Government by minorities in competitive systems creates a sense of distance between the elected and the electorate. And as individual politicians turn their positions into careers, those minorities evolve into elites.
So how can we make democracy work more in favour of a greater number of the population? How can we heal the divide between the governed and the governors?

There are a number of ideas around.

Limitation to years of service
A simple way to mitigate against the creation of political elites would be to limit the number of years any individual could serve on any elected body. Democratic countries which have a President already limit his, or her, possible years of service in that post. It’s usually a sign of a slide into autocracy when a particular President changes a constitution to remove that limit.
Limiting the number of years which any individual can serve in parliament would make it harder for them to become career politicians, and therefore, a separate, elite, class. It would also make it harder for lobbyists to buy political support (although there would need to be a lot more than that to tackle the issue of lobbyists. Who was it who said they’d “drain the swamp”? How’s that going?)

Proportional representation with minimum level bars
Proportional representation for all elections, with the setting of minimum levels of support necessary to be elected could also contribute to decreasing the gap between whole electorates and their representatives. With an electorate of 100,000 people, a representative could be required to achieve a minimum number of votes, say 50,000, in order to be elected. This might require more than one round of voting, as is currently the case in several European countries.
Minimum level bars could also be set within a house of parliament, demanding a higher level of consensus than the current first past the post system allows for.

Election by lot
The House of Lords in the UK is a completely unelected chamber. One possibility would be to replace it with individuals drawn by lot, in the same way as people are selected for jury duty. Such a chamber could then have the responsibility for scrutinising plans and policies of the House of Representatives (or Commons, in the UK) with the intention of achieving as much consensus as possible within practical time limits. The House of Consensus would then make recommendations back to the House of Representatives.

Two chambers – a House of Consensus and a House of Representatives
What if one chamber of government, the one of elected representatives, had the responsibility for governing on the basis of the greatest degree of consensus achievable, rather than one of governing group versus opposition working against each other in their own Party interests? The use of committee systems to explore, challenge and analyse policies could be developed further. Across the chamber working groups and a voting system requiring minimum level votes to pass laws might lead to greater consensus and less conflict.
A second chamber, elected by lot, could have the responsibility for the scrutiny of proposals, policies and laws developed by the House of Representatives, then returned there for further discussion, debate and votes.
The first chamber makes decisions and laws, the second one problem solves and makes suggestions.

Preferendum
In relation to referendums, a recent French article laid out the idea of a “preferendum”. To avoid the binary trap of “yes” or “no” which only perpetuates division, each question asked on the ballot paper could be presented in the form of preferences. This involves asking the voter to state a level of preference for each of a number of options. From “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. The option with the greatest overall preference is the one taken forward.

Devolution and decentralisation
This is an idea which has been around for a long time, and has been carried out to different degrees in different countries, but the basic principle seems reasonable – that the closer an elected body is to its electorate, the more easily representatives can be held to account. Again, there could be limits to the number of years any individual can serve in any elected position. At any level of government, minimum voting levels and some selection by lot can be used. So local bodies could employ such principles as well as the national ones.

Citizens assemblies
Citizens assemblies have been used in a number of countries to help develop policies. These are locally gathered groups of people who debate, discuss and deliberate on an issue to put forward policy suggestions. They would probably never replace other democratic pathways but might be a useful way of broadening engagement.

Spring

It’s only the 17th of February but this week, here in the Charente, it feels like Spring. It’s chilly in the mornings, sometimes only a degree or two above freezing, but by the afternoon, after a few hours of bright sun shining down from a blue, blue sky, the air has warmed up to 14 degrees, or more.
Under the mulberry tree, for the last few years, we’ve been planting crocus bulbs every autumn. The first of them appeared this week. I mean, just look at the richness of those purple petals opening up to reveal the golden treasure within!

At first there were just half a dozen of them, but day by day, more have appeared, purples, yellows, whites, little petals, big, bold, look at me petals! They are delightful.

Look at them when the sun sets their golden stamens and pistils on fire! When those delicate little triads cast those shadows on the veined purple petals!
Here’s another one, this time, white

Two sets of three petals, one behind the other, and in the middle, three yellow stamens at the base of a deep, orange, pistil. The gorgeous shadows stretching up from the splash of yellow at the base of each petal, up towards its milky white peak.
This is a flower in all it’s glory. That central female pistil, it’s three stigma (what’s the plural of stigma?) opening to the highway down to the ovary, surrounded by three male stamens.
Is three the magic number?
I see it repeated, layer after layer, here.
As I sit under the mulberry tree reading a book in the afternoon sun, I hear a deep buzzing sound and look up to see a huge, jet black, carpenter bee, flying from crocus to crocus, collecting delicious nectar and pollen, flower by flower. The sun catches the bee’s wings which shine with an iridescent purple sheen. Stunning.
There’s something deeply entrancing, delightfully awe inspiring, about the simplest, smallest, everyday events.

It feels like Spring.

Traces of the Sun

You know it’s not a good idea to look directly at the Sun, don’t you? But, all the same, we are magnetically drawn to sunsets, aren’t we?

Who can resist them?

Watching the huge glowing red ball of fire sink below the horizon is a treat which never becomes mundane. I don’t remember ever noticing the sun setting and thinking, “ho hum”. It draws me towards it.

Sometimes I just watch it through my window, but often I feel almost compelled to go outside and watch. As if moving a few metres closer to it gives me a better view! But, actually, I think the reason I’m drawn outside to see it is that I want to see the breadth of the sunset, want to be able to see the colours in the sky change from one edge of the horizon to the next. It’s not enough to see it enclosed in a window frame.

I read the other day that John Ruskin (you’re going to come across him a lot this year – it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth) like to watch the dawn and the sunset every day. I can understand that.

Here’s last night’s sunset. After the sun has disappeared below the horizon and I can’t see it directly any more.

And here’s a phenomenon I’ve written about before, which entrances me every single time – it’s “The Belt of Venus” – which appears on the Western horizon at dawn, just as the Sun is appearing in the East, this morning.

Fire in the Snow

Today’s woodprint is another Hokusai. It shows a group of five hunters warming themselves in front of a roaring fire in the middle of winter.
I think anyone looking at this will be struck by the vivid representation of the fire. The flames and smoke, maybe even the heat (because you can see heat sometimes, can’t you?” leap up as tall as the men and flow, driven by the wind, towards the mountains and the sky.
I then looked at the hunters. A curious group! Why is one of them actually sitting on the snow? Is he drunk? And another one, apparently determined to warm up his bum! Maybe he’d also been sitting on the snow and was now trying to dry his breeks! Then one of them who is warming his hands is obviously finding the fire so hot that while trying to get his hands as close as he can to the fire, he is simultaneously trying to get his face and his body away from it!
They do look a lively bunch, and I suppose my first thought was about human beings inventing fire and how much that had changed the course of history. Our ability to start fires and generate heat enables us to survive cold conditions, explore places we’d previously been unable to explore, as well as warding off wild animals, and greatly diversifying our diet once we applied fire as a method of food preparation (otherwise known as cooking!) – which reminds me about the Netflix series, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” and, their, Cooked  by Michael Pollan. I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, and often recall his fabulous, seven word best diet recommendation – “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much

But then my mind flipped to the more symbolic level and I saw in the woodcut two of the four great elements – fire and water. Fire in the hunter’s bonfire, and water in the form of snow and ice surrounding them.
Flames always reach upwards, don’t they? Which is probably partly why the alchemical symbol for fire is an upward pointing triangle. Traditionally, both, the fire and the upward pointing triangle, are associated with the male principle.

I’m not talking gender here, but the centuries old understanding of male and female principles as symbolic forces. The Sun, a fiery ball, is often associated with the male principle, while the Moon, with the female.

In the Tarot, The Emperor and the Empress make a similar pair.

In the yin yang symbol, which powerfully conveys the concepts of dynamism and wholeness, the feminine, yin, and the masculine, yang, are shown as equals.

Maybe it’s because my train of thought went off down that track of the unions of these forces, of the power of such coupling, but the next thing I noticed were the two trees on the right hand side of the image. The one, nested into the forked branches of the other. Am I just imagining something here? Or was Hokusai showing us something very important…..how reality is created by connections, by the embrace of fundamental principles or forces. That reminded me of Carlos Rovelli’s beautiful phrase where he explains why we should think in terms of events instead of objects –

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.
(from “Reality is Not What it Seems”)

I’ve written more about that idea in my book, “Unique in All the World”.

Forgiveness

In “Sens et Santé” magazine there’s a special feature on Forgiveness, or, in French, “Pardon”.

Psychologists, philosophers and spiritual guides often teach about the power of gratitude. Keeping a gratitude diary, for example, where you note down a list of things you are grateful for each day is a powerful way to fix your attention on the positives in your life, and to break free from the negative loops of rumination and despair.
Forgiveness, is a related, but different skill. Somehow, or at least so it seems to me, it’s not talked about as much as gratitude is. Maybe because forgiveness is more deeply connected to religious teaching? I don’t know.
Whatever the reasons, I think this feature in “Sens et Santé” is very welcome, and timely, given the depth and breadth of feelings of anger, resentment and hatred which we are witnessing at this time in the world.

The article is primarily based on the works of Thomas Baumgartner, a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Berne, in Switzerland, and Robert Enright, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, in the United States.

I took two main points of learning from my reading of it.
One is the connection between forgiveness and the brain’s capacity for “theory of mind”. It seems the same network of areas in the brain is active when either forgiveness or “theory of mind” is taking place. Theory of mind is the ability to imagine another’s experience, their thoughts and feelings. It develops in human beings around the age of four years old. Before that we think that whatever we know everyone else knows. There’s no understanding that someone else might have different knowledge from our own. There’s a clue in this neurological association, because forgiveness involves the ability to step outside of our own circuits of rumination and self-focus.
That’s the second point of learning for me, actually, and it takes up much of the article.
Robert Enright says it is important not to confound forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation is the bringing together of two people to help them to rebuild confidence in each other. Forgiveness, he says, in contrast, doesn’t require us to have confidence in the other person. He also points out that forgiveness is not about excusing someone, it’s not about saying what they did was fine, nor is it about forgetting. It’s not about saying “I don’t care”, or “I’ll let go and just not think about this any more”
Instead he describes forgiveness in three steps.

  1. First, recognise the wound, or the hurt.
  2. Second, decide to stop nourishing the negative feelings of resentment.
  3. Third, and he says, this is the hardest part, feel compassion for the perpetrator.

Helpfully, he unpacks both steps two and three to show how they are both powerfully linked and actually work together in a kind of positive feedback loop. The one, enhancing the other.
We can only shift our attention, if we direct it somewhere else. That’s a beginning. Deciding, I’m going to interrupt the negative loop. When I become aware of thoughts of resentment and rumination, that I decide at that point to focus on something else.
What else?
Well, towards the other person. Think about both their differences from you, and their commonalities with you, and, if you can, learn about their vulnerabilities and their weaknesses. Once you understand what you have in common with the other, as well as what’s different about them, and focus on their weaknesses, then it is easier to feel compassion for them. It’s easier to even build feelings of good intention towards them, suspending your legitimate claims to vengeance and anger, and choosing instead wish them well.
Oh, that sounds easy in a sentence of two doesn’t it? But he accepts that this, third step is by far and away the hardest. It’s not a magic wand he says. It takes willpower, continued effort, and time. It’s not a quick fix.

The article comes with a nice little set of references at the end, and despite the fact it’s a French language article, the references are all English language ones. Here they are –

Learning from others

petite philo des oiseaux

I’ve just finished reading Philippe Dubois and Élise Rousseau’s “Petite Philosophie des Oiseaux”. It reminds me a book I read last year – Emanuele Coccia’s “La vie des plantes”. Both books look at a non-human realm of life and use reflections on the lifestyles and life strategies of, in the first case, birds, and in the latter, plants, to stimulate the reader into reflecting on aspects of what it is to be human.
I’ve never read any books like these in English, so they are a validation of one of my main reasons to retire to France from Scotland – to learn another language and explore a whole other way of thinking and living.

Migration

There are lots of fascinating, even astonishing stories about birds in the “Petite Philo…” book. For example, the “bar tailed godwit” (which has a much nicer French name – “La barge rousse” – which migrates back and forward between the Alaska and New Zealand. It flies non-stop 11,000 km (that’s over 6000 miles) in about a week, meaning it flies at 70 km/hr! All that in a bird which weighs only about 300 grams. Can you imagine? How does it fly all that way without stopping even once? Apparently, when it sleeps, only half of its brain sleeps, the other half staying awake. How would you fancy developing that skill? (Mind you only using half your brain isn’t that uncommon – ha! ha!)
Lots of birds migrate of course, and nobody knows how they find their way so precisely that they return to the exact same nesting sites every year. Think of the cuckoo whose parents abandon it into another bird’s nest when it is just an egg, but when ready, the chick flies off and travels to Africa from Europe! How does it know how to do precisely that?
The Artic Tern is the most traveled of all the migrators. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about it –

A 2010 study using tracking devices attached to the birds showed that the above examples are not unusual for the species. In fact, it turned out, previous research had seriously underestimated the annual distances travelled by the Arctic tern. Eleven birds that bred in Greenland or Iceland covered 70,900 km (44,100 mi) on average in a year, with a maximum of 81,600 km (50,700 mi). The difference from previous estimates is due to the birds’ taking meandering courses rather than following a straight route as was previously assumed. The birds follow a somewhat convoluted course in order to take advantage of prevailing winds. The average Arctic tern lives about thirty years, and will, based on the above research, travel some 2.4 million km (1.5 million mi) during its lifetime, the equivalent of a roundtrip from Earth to the Moon over 3 times

When you read something like that it’s kind of hard to hang onto a belief that human beings are the most superior of all the animals. We need our rather flawed GPS systems to navigate. They just do it.

Living in the moment

I think that’s one of the main themes of the book, actually. In one passage they say (and this is my translation, so sorry if it’s not perfect! The Aegithalidae are what we call, in English, “tits”. In French, they are “mésanges”).

mesange

 

But the little tit, does she have any need of the idea of death? No, certainly not. Because making the most of every moment, appreciating every seed she gleans, every ray of sunshine, she does all that already. She doesn’t need someone to teach this truth, she doesn’t need to philosophise: she is already wholly immersed in her life.
The tit doesn’t look forward, doesn’t make plans, doesn’t put things off until tomorrow, doesn’t imagine that things were better in the old days. She lives.

 

Intelligence

One of my favourite chapters in the one about intelligence, subtitled with a phrase, which, in English, would be “Bird brain!”
When we call somebody bird brained we’re insulting them. But is it true that birds are not intelligent creatures? No!
Just because they have relatively small brains, doesn’t mean they must be relatively stupid. The authors point out that some men have even tried to claim that they are intellectually superior to women because men have bigger brains the women! That hasn’t worked out so well either, has it guys? In fact, birds’ brains have twice as many synapses (connections) in them than the brains of elephants, chimps, or other mammals.
After musing a bit about just what is intelligence anyway? After considering the issue of different kinds of intelligence, including musical and emotional, they describe a number of quite amazing bird behaviours.
Did you know that Blue Jay looks ahead to winter by collecting nuts and seeds and burying them for colder months to come, but if they see another Blue Jay, or other bird, watching them, they’ll pretend to be burying food when they aren’t really?
Some crows have been observed places nuts on the road at traffic lights, when the lights are at red, then when they turn green, the cars run over the nuts to crack them open. The crows wait till the traffic light turns red again, then swoop down to get the nuts.
An experiment done on magpies involved putting a red mark on their brow. When the magpie saw itself in a mirror, it tried to scratch off the red mark.
There are many other examples.

The question the authors ask is shouldn’t we consider that adaptive intelligence, learning how to change your behaviour according to the conditions and environment, actually one of the best kinds of intelligence to have?
As we heat our planet up, fill our oceans with plastic, and our soil with toxic chemicals, it’s tempting to think we’ve got a bit of catching up to do when it comes to adaptive intelligence!