Archive for June, 2009

….stepped out into the garden at work and look what I found!

GHH iris


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The NHS Confederation has produced a report highlighting a potential “shortfall” in the NHS in England’s budget by 2011. I heard one of their spokeswomen on the BBC news this morning and she summarised the Confederation’s message. They are recommending more “efficiency”, better “productivity” and a reduction in the range of services offered by the NHS. In their report they make it clear that the changes will require reducing the number of NHS staff and having clinicians perform more doctor-patient interventions.
Another way of putting this is to say they think the answers lie in less staff providing a greater number of uniform interventions to more people.

I find these conclusions dehumanising. They turn subjects into objects. Health and illness are experiences. They are not events or products.

I’ve just finished reading The Postmodern Prince by John Sanbonmatsu. It covers an area of academic activity  I’m not familiar with – political critical theory. However, a few passages struck me loud and clear.

Holbach and Helvetius had portrayed “Man” as a rational, self-interested subject – and manipulable object. This rationalist view sharply separated culture and nature, subject and object, thought and feeling, and so on,

In the 1920s, Georg Lukacs elaborated Marx and Engels’ critique in his brilliant work, History and Class Consciousness, with his famous description of reification – the cultural process in capitalism by which subjects are turned into objects, and objects into seeming “subjects”, under the twin pressures of commodification and rationalisation.

What all forms of idealism, past, present, or future, have in common is the suppression of experience as the basis of human knowledge and practice.

Ethical relations, broadly speaking, depend on what Daniel Brudney calls “attentiveness to the other”. Without this attentiveness, we risk mistaking a “who” for a “what” – that is, a being or a subject for a thing – and so come to justify all manner of political violence.

Empathy – this powerful natural capacity of ours – must be held at bay, sublimated into the rationalist’s passion for dispassion.

One of the hallmarks of modernity is rationalisation, the progressive reduction of the lifeworld to quantifiable procedures and methods. But in stripping nature of its mystery, the Enlightenment disfigured the nonhuman. This, in turn, has led to our own disfigurement, a “disenchantment” as technological innovation and scientific revolution yielded ever more powerful ways of controlling human beings, and not “only” other animals.

These quotes capture, for me, the essence of something fundamentally important. Our systems are falling apart, and it strikes me that the greatest failure of our current political, economic and social systems is the way they de-humanise, the way they turn the “subject” into an “object”. It’s life-denying.

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Both Channel 4’s “more4news” and the NHS Confederation today contributed to the ongoing attack on homeopathy in the NHS by claiming that removing homeopathic care from the NHS would make a useful contribution to improving the NHS finances. Are they serious?

According to more4news the NHS in England spent about £3.5 million pounds a year on homeopathic care for about 22,000 patient “episodes” a year (both outpatient and inpatient care).

In 2007-2008 there were 54.3 million outpatient attendances (“episodes”) in England.

In 2005 an estimated £320 million pounds was spent by the NHS in England on management consultants.

The NHS drug bill is £7.2 BILLION.

Adverse drug effects from these prescribed drugs cost an estimated £466 million to treat in the NHS in England in 2006.

Bit of perspective guys? If you’re looking for answers to the financial problems of the NHS, you’re not going to find them in denying access to a therapy chosen by patients with long term conditions. Those patients aren’t going to go away. They’ll just need treated with something more expensive, and more likely to cause harm, than the care they’re currently receiving from their NHS homeopathic clinics.

In the real world, there are no single treatments which are guaranteed to work in every single patient with the same illness. In the NHS, as in Nature, we need diversity because, actually, we’re not all the same.

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I looked out of my window yesterday evening and this caught my eye –


I’ve seen the sun and the clouds work together to do this regularly at this time of year and I knew I was in for a treat.




It brought back to my mind a C S Lewis story about a blind man who starts to be able to see, and having heard so much about light he asks people to show him light, but everyone points to light sources not to light itself.
When the clouds part slightly to let these great shafts of sunlight emerge it really does feel like we are looking at light itself. It’s great ART isn’t it?

Then once the show is over, and the sun has disappeared down behind the mountains, it does this little encore, throwing red flares up into the sky to bring a rosy glow to the clouds. Phew!

sunset flare

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I’m a great Bob Harris fan. I love his Radio 2 show on a Saturday night. Last night he played three tracks from an album entitled Songs Around the World, from a project known as Playing for Change.

Here’s one of the three he played (I could have posted ANY of them!) This music is JOYOUS. Is there any better way to show how the paradox of difference and similarity is so characteristically human?

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Human history, as best we know, dates back around 200,000 years. For 190,ooo of those years we were hunter-gatherers and for the last 10,000 we’ve had agriculture.

I suppose I’d read about the hunter-gatherer phase long since but the significance of it never really struck me, and certainly the fact that so much of human history was in that phase was something that really didn’t register. For some reason, I’ve stumbled upon a number of different references to this in recent reading. I was musing about what characteristics have been to the fore in the two phases, and I wondered if the hunter-gatherer phase demanded a greater focus on co-operation, whilst the agriculture phase led to ownership and competition. But maybe that’s too simplistic. These thoughts have been around for me during these crises of recent times – the economic, environmental and political ones. There’s a feeling just now that we could be witnessing the crumbling of whole global system, and it leaves us wondering what might emerge to take its place. Which characteristics are we going to need to deal with these current, and future challenges?

I don’t have the answers in place, but here’s a couple of interesting articles to throw into the mix. First off, I read a post on Deric Bownd’s blog. He titled the post “Civilisation has caused the decline of human health“. Well, that caught my eye! He was referring to a presentation by Ann Gibbons at an Americal Assoc. of Physical Anthropologists meeting. 72 researchers studied the data on the remains of 11,000 individuals who lived from 3,000 to 200 years ago in Europe. Here’s the conclusion –

…the health of many Europeans began to worsen markedly about 3000 years ago, after agriculture became widely adopted in Europe and during the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations. They document shrinking stature and growing numbers of skeletal lesions from leprosy and tuberculosis, caused by living close to livestock and other humans in settlements where waste accumulated. The numbers of dental hypoplasias and cavities also increased as people switched to a grain-based diet with fewer nutrients and more sugars…After a long, slow decline through the Middle Ages, health began to improve in the mid-19th century. Stature increased, probably because of several factors: The little Ice Age ended and food production rose, and better trade networks, sanitation, and medicine developed… But take heed: Overall health and stature in the United States has been declining slightly since the 1950s, possibly because obese Americans eat a poor-quality diet, not unlike early farmers whose diet was less diverse and nutritious than that of hunter-gatherers.

So a bit of a mixed picture but an interesting analysis of the impact of agriculture on our species.

Then I read an article in the Independent on Friday. The article was subtitled “Scientists explain how altruism evolved over 200,000 years of conflict”. This piece described the work of Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who is challenging the common “Darwinian” theory that altruism is not a characteristic which would be selected for (the “selfish gene” theory) Bowles argues that during the time of hunter-gatherer tribes –

Warfare was sufficiently common and lethal among our ancestors to favour the evolution of what I call parochial altruism, a predisposition to be co-operative towards group members and hostile towards outsiders.

He argues that selection worked on groups, not just individuals and the groups which developed this “parochial altruism” did best. He does admit this is not the only possible explanation for altruism –

[The] willingness to take mortal risks as a fighter is not the only form of altruism… more altruistic and hence more co-operative groups may be more productive and sustain healthier, stronger, or more numerous members, for example, or make more effective use of information

Other scientists are supporting this challenge to the selfish gene theory, arguing that selection effects on groups may be more apparent in a species like humans because our species is a “cultural” one.

It’s interesting to take this longer view of human history. Such a change of perspective can help you see the wood for the trees I think. In particular I find this stimulates my thought about the relative merits of co-operation vs competition (as well as stimulating my thought about how we feed ourselves!)

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purple iris

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