Archive for the ‘world’ Category

Larger than life with a small ‘l’ – ant colonies and the big mind

Friday, March 19, 2010

I don’t know how this can be explained purely by the neo-Darwinian idea that the purpose of life is to propagate one’s genes. (Could such architecture be programmed within the genes of a single ant???)  And I don’t know how this can be explained without some notion of supra-organism intelligence or mind. Watch and wonder at our world -

- and consider the supra-human mind of which we must be a part. Might there be a dimension to Life with a capital ‘L’ that we forget in our ‘own’, individual lives?

Cities rot the brain: why we need nature

Friday, January 9, 2009

Catananche caerulea by sftrajan.
Catananche caerulea, by sftrajan

Extract from an article in the Boston Globe that mostly makes sense (except where the author seems to suggest nature is an ‘all calming’ influence; he needs to get out more!) -

While the human brain possesses incredible computational powers, it’s surprisingly easy to short-circuit: all it takes is a hectic city street.

“I think cities reveal how fragile some of our ‘higher’ mental functions actually are,” Kuo says. “We take these talents for granted, but they really need to be protected.”

Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

City life can also lead to loss of emotional control. Kuo and her colleagues found less domestic violence in the apartments with views of greenery. These data build on earlier work that demonstrated how aspects of the urban environment, such as crowding and unpredictable noise, can also lead to increased levels of aggression. A tired brain, run down by the stimuli of city life, is more likely to lose its temper.

Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices, philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “adopt the pace of nature,” while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the maelstrom of urban life.

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

“We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the brain within minutes. As the Berman study demonstrates, just looking at a natural scene can lead to higher scores on tests of attention and memory. While people have searched high and low for ways to improve cognitive performance, from doping themselves with Red Bull to redesigning the layout of offices, it appears that few of these treatments are as effective as simply taking a walk in a natural place.

Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life, from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. Kuo, for instance, describes herself as “not a nature person,” but has learned to seek out more natural settings: The woods have become a kind of medicine. As a result, she’s better able to cope with the stresses of city life, while still enjoying its many pleasures and benefits.

Five (make that six) reasons to hope

Friday, November 21, 2008

…that global warming is deflected:

1. Hope for the Rain Forests

California, as part of its effort to curtail global warming, could allow companies to pay for projects that preserve Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests, according to Bloomberg. The agreement was described as “pioneering” and goes a long way toward tackling the “other” cause of carbon emissions (other than burning fossil fuels) – destroying forests. Indonesia and Brazil are among the world’s top carbon polluters (No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, behind China and the United States) largely because their forests are disappearing so quickly. This agreement could help stop the 20% of global carbon emissions that come from deforestation.

Indonesia, meanwhile, plans to plant 100 million trees in 2009, according to Reuters. Indonesia has already lost 70% of its original forests, and loses enough forest every year to cover Connecticut and Rhode Island (and then some), but it still retains a forest about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined.

2. Britain Goes All In

Britain became the first nation in the world to set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions that match U.N. targets. The law requires the government to slash emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, according to Agence-France Presse. Under the law, Britain will have to meet new carbon-reduction targets every five years.

3. Coal Is on the Defensive
For years, the norm in environmental litigation has been something like this:
- i. Polluting industry proposes polluting
- ii. Government agencies agree
- iii. Environmental groups sue
- iv. Courts side with environmentalists
Well, there’s a new chapter. In Kansas, where the Democratic Gov. (and one-time purported vice presidential possibility for Obama) Kathleen Sebelius stopped the construction of a coal plant because of the greenhouse gas emissions it would pump into the atmosphere, Sunflower Electric is taking her and her environmental agency to court. The company’s complaint? That its civil rights were violated by the governor’s decision.

4. The U.S. Can Cut Energy Use 20%

A new report lays out a framework for U.S. states to dramatically cut energy use — 20% by 2025. The proposed investments in energy efficiency would save $500 billion over 20 years, cut the need for new energy sources by 50% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

So who produced this report? Some radical left-wing conspiracy of economy-killing tree huggers? Nope. Try Bush Administration. The Department of Energy and The Environmental Protection Agency released the report, National Action Plan Vision for 2025: A Framework for Change.

“Change” … Now where have we heard that word recently …?

5. Obama

In a speech delivered via video to a bipartisan climate summit in California, Obama pledged to take strong action to combat global warming. Here’s what he had to say:


- those reasons from 19th November ’08.  There’s also the news from 20th November that an environmentally-progressive US Congressman has upended the formerly oil- and Detroit-friendly leadership of the influential Energy Committee. Which is good for Obama’s agenda, and better for the wider world.  Even if it does foster the end of the car-manufacturing machine as we know it.  Too bad.  So long and thanks for all the (dead) fish.

‘No artist can compete with a tree’

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mangrove Heart by Arthus-Bertrand by you.

- so said Yves Arthus-Bertrand.  He spotted this mangrove swamp in New Caledonia, Canada, from some flying machine and the naturally-occurring, heart-shaped clearing struck a chord.  He had undertaken his project, ‘Earth from Above’, to express the beauty of the planet and raise awareness about environmental and social issues.  The caption that came with this photo -

Swamps like the one here are crucial to protecting coastlines and cover almost a quarter of tropical coasts.  But that’s just half of what it was, having shrunk due to development and pollution.

He said,

‘We have to love, to share… there is no way we can have sustainable development in the world if we cannot live together’.

His goal is to get people to change their lives, leaving smaller footprints and a more sustainable future.

‘We want everything faster. We cut the trees faster than the trees grow. We take the fish faster than they can reproduce. We send CO2 into the sky faster than the CO2 can be absorbed. If we don’t change nature is going to force us to change … We are part of the ecosystem. We have forgotten, it’s not nature on one side and man on the other side. Man is part of nature.’

Sumptuous.

Awakening to our true place in the universe: on the need to cut light pollution

Monday, November 17, 2008

Flagstaff night sky / starry starry night by MichaelPgh.uploaded to flickr by MichaelPgh

The desire and ability to dispel darkness has been one of the blessings of modernity.  It has enabled us to extend our days and pursue our interests for longer.  However, such is the disquiet that only now are concerns about the unintended consequences of our lust for light being given an airing in the likes of National Geographic magazine. The ‘peripheral glow of our prosperity’ that is light pollution has been significantly screwing up the habits and dispositions of many of our creaturely neighbours. And we are only beginning to query what it might be doing for us -

Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives—one of our circadian rhythms—is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.

For the past century or so, we’ve been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body’s sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

I wrote about the need to cut light pollution, and to develop awareness of the starry sky, before.

Uphold democracy, prosecute Cheney and Bush

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If, like me, you appreciate the freedom that living in a democratic country affords, then you really should familiarise yourself with this well-crafted documentary: it clarifies why the Bush-Cheney administration should be prosecuted for war crimes. Via The Daily Dish.

On top of the world: Obama and global warming

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bill McKibben, published in the Guardian, on the biggest challenge facing Obama: global warming -

[...] by every testimony, he’s one of the smartest men ever to assume high political office in this country. Not just smarter than Bush. Really smart. Smart enough, if he sits down to really understand the scale of the problem he faces, that he might decide to take the gambles that the situation requires. He said, not long ago, “under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket” — which is a sign of someone who is aware there may be a reality to come to grips with.

The Restoration Begins

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

obama by kungfusoi.Uploaded to flickr by kingfusoi

From CNN’s political ticker -

During the long campaign, the timing of Obama’s entrances at rallies was meticulously coordinated – the preliminary orators (usually local government officials and candidates) spoke, the music and its pacing built up with the intention of quickening the pulses of the crowds, and then, at exactly the right moment, Obama, the candidate, would make his entrance.

But by late last night Obama was no longer a candidate, and there was no need to pump up the sense of anticipation, and the evening’s events – the concession call from John McCain, the congratulatory call from President Bush – were being dealt with as they rapidly occurred on a timetable Obama’s staff could not control. So there was some dead time in the park before Obama appeared on the stage.

And the crowd, for just those brief few moments, became all but mute. They weren’t certain what was going to happen next.

What happened next, in the crisp and clear night, was the Obama family suddenly coming into sight. Then, the cheers reached the sky. But in the quiet that preceded…

In that quiet there was the recognition:

Here comes the part of this drama that is unknown and unknowable.

Here – in the days and weeks and years ahead – comes life; here comes events that know no schedule, that can’t be planned, that will appear on no carefully constructed itinerary.

The silence from the crowd was like an intake of breath.

The silence said:

Here we are– we, the people in Grant Park; we, the people of the United States; we, the people of the world. Here we are, and none of us – not even and especially the man on the stage, the man just elected to be the 44th president – can be sure of what lies ahead.

If some in the audience – those of us in the park, and those watching around the world – sensed perhaps the slightest sliver of a subdued tone in Obama’s voice, a perceptible difference in his timbre, if not his words, from how he had sounded on the campaign trail, the shift was understandable.

It may have been his own version – intentional or involuntary – of that sudden silence that fell over the crowd. He can’t be silent, in any sense of that word – he is going to be the president. But during that same span late last night when the audience, in its brief hush, seemed to be acknowledging that everything – everything – had just changed, so, too, Obama appeared to be sending the signal, to the rest of us and maybe to himself, that he was well aware of the change, and was already beginning to deal with it.

He is no longer a candidate seeking something. Last night’s Chicago weather – so warm and inviting for November – was deceptive; it will not be warm here very much longer. Obama, of all people, knows that; he has lived in Chicago long enough to realize that balmy days with winter coming are the most predictable of teases.

The silence of the crowd ended and the roar greeted him, and as he, a man just hired for a new job, looked out at the people and at his city’s glorious skyline, you asked yourself if the thought may have been crossing his mind:

There will, in my life, be other good nights. But none of them will ever be as good as this one.

Choosing a better history: a big, big day

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This quote has been attributed, correctly or no, to Nelson Mandela -

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Go vote, America, and choose wisely.


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