Archive for the ‘lifestyle’ Category

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.

Consuming for the economy or the future?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Alastair McIntosh was contributing BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day yesterday.  Here’s an excerpt –

Our conundrum is that we need more consumption to save the economy, but less to save the planet.

Spending our way out of a recession is therefore only a stop-gap measure. It’s methadone for our planetary heroin addiction.

We simply feed the habit if we think that today’s problems can be tackled at conventional political, technical or economic levels. If we’re redefining our “central mission”, we must press further.

Technical fixes are certainly part of the solution. But I’d put it to you that the deep work must be this: to learn to live more abundantly with less, to rekindle community, and to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping at the altars of greed.

The crisis of these times is therefore spiritual. It calls for reconnecting our inner lives with the outer world – an expansion of consciousness. And that’s an opportunity that we neglect at our peril, for as I once heard an old Quaker woman say, “It is perilous, to neglect one’s spiritual life.

A constructive use for anger: the case against plastic bags

Saturday, November 24, 2007

From today’s Guardian

You can witness a lot of environmental horrors, but there comes a moment when something snaps. It came for Rebecca Hosking last year when she was filming wildlife in the Pacific. What sounded like a nice job turned into something from a David Cronenberg film.

Hosking was on a beach on Midway island, a remote Hawaiian atoll. But instead of finding some pre-lapsarian wilderness, she and a colleague were confronted with the horror of hundreds of albatrosses lying on the sand.

The great birds’ stomachs had been split open by the heat, and bits of plastic were spewing out between the feathers and the bones. All kinds of plastic – toys, shopping bags, asthma inhalers, pens, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, combs, bottle tops. The birds had swallowed them and choked to death.

It got worse. There were humpback whales, seals and turtles – all dead or dying from the plastic. Wherever they went the sea was full of tiny pieces of plastic and every tide brought more. On the leeward side of Midway they found thousands of albatross chicks dead or fatally weakened. Hosking picked up one still alive. It pecked her and then died too. At that, Hosking broke down in anger and distress. Most people would have left it there, but Hosking proved as tough as the bits of old toothbrush she saw. She went home to Modbury, the south Devon town where she was born and has always lived. She finished the film for the BBC. Then she set about banning plastic bags. Just like that.

In under a month, working with friends and showing her film, she persuaded all 43 Modbury shopkeepers to replace the plastic bag, the symbol of the throwaway society, with reusable cloth bags. What started as a six-month trial period became a permanent voluntary project, and the town’s traders now reckon they have avoided 500,000 bags ending up in the environment.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said: “She’s changed the national perspective about the issue in a few months. She went as far away as she could get from her town and gave what is happening in the Pacific real meaning and relevance here. She should be prime minister.”

Well I’m flabbergasted…

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Nicole Ritchie apparently loves the planet (WARNING: potentially offensive material). Being a wee bit intrigued by the picture in question, I googled Nicole Ritchie to learn she’s a vacuous sometime-friend of Paris Hilton. Maybe the picture provides a clue as to the real cause of global warming.

The Century Of The All-Consuming Self, parts I-IV

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Here is the brilliant BBC series about the creation of the consumer culture in the twentieth century. Worth watching if you’ve a spare four hours.

Part I: the creation of people as ‘happiness machines’

Part II: ‘the engineering of consent’ of the masses

Part III: ‘the policeman in our heads’ must be destroyed

Part IV: the maintenance of political control through focus groups

Thanks to Undercurrents Video for the link.

William Bloom on spiritual practice

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I’ve been a fan of William Bloom’s ever since I participated in his workshops and courses some years ago. His book, Money, Heart and Mind left a profound influence on me (and helped me get a 1st for some university coursework). Here’s a taste of his profound thinking, lifted from the Cygnus Review, in relation to the world’s spiritual traditions –

We are the first generation ever that is able to look at all the world’s spiritual traditions. This gives us a unique opportunity to see the core practices that they share. Despite all their differences – for example, from meditation to ecstatic dance – there are great similarities. It is like sport. No matter which particular sport you practice – golf, swimming, tennis – you still need to practice certain core skills such as fitness, muscle tone and stamina. Spirituality also has its core skills. Let me ask you three simple questions that illustrate this. The answers to these questions will show whether you have the basis of Spiritual Practice.

(But why, you may ask, would you want to do spiritual practice? Because, like piano or yoga or football, you want to get better at it! To become more awake and conscious. To be more connected. To soak in the beauty and wonder.)

Anyway have a look at these three questions and answer Yes or No:

  • Spiritual Connection: Do you connect with the pure wonder of existence?
  • Reflection: Do you reflect on your development and consciousness – and seek to guide them?
  • Service: Do you try to live a life that is of benefit to others?

If you answer ‘Yes’ to those three questions then, according to most traditions, you already understand and observe the three core skills of Spiritual Practice. Do them regularly and with consciousness and you actually have an ongoing and grounded rhythm.

I myself am a fairly lazy practitioner (William’s wisdom doesn’t go away, though), which is probably why I can be prone to depression. Thank goodness for good friendships. I suspect we need robust spiritual practice to stay grounded, equanimous and compassionate to contend with turbulence, as alerted to in the previous post. It’s time I engaged with spiritual practice more.

‘We live in loud times’ – a vocal call to listen

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Volume, pace and pitch summon whole worlds. Intonation is a language in itself. The American philosopher and wit, Sidney Morgenbesser, was in the audience at a lecture given by the American philosopher J.L. Austin at Colombia University in the 1950s. When Austin explained that many languages employ the double negative to denote a positive (‘He is not unlike his sister’), but none employed a double positive to make a negative, Morgenbesser waved his arm dismissively, and retorted: ‘Yeah, yeah.’

With the blast and blare of cinemas, restaurants, concerts, computer games and TV commercials,

– add to these the hydraulic waste-collection truck and the carpenter’s screaming, electric blade saw outside my window as I write –

we live in loud times. A recent study by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggested that birds that live near motorways can’t hear each other, leading to difficulties in learning songs and communicating with potential mates. Another study found that 5-year old children who attended nursery developed more voice problems that those who didn’t because of the high noise levels and unsympathetic acoustic environment. What’s the effect on humans when voices are submerged by the din? And how can we create an acoustic space in which this suggestive but perpetually elusive instrument, the human voice, can flourish?

To attune properly to the voice we must develop a keener sensitivity, a ‘deep listening’. To start a real conversation about this most vital talent, we need to hear with fresh ears.

– from Anne Karpf’s The Human Voice (pp.290-1)

Our terminal decline – face it with flowers

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Someone told me this afternoon of a friend diagnosed with a terminal illness and given six months to live. She set about tying loose ends, resolving issues with others, saying goodbyes, and preparing for her transition from this life in practical ways to make things as easy as possible for her son. Apparently she died with dignity. She had a straightforward awareness of what she needed to do and of what was happening to her.

The teller of this simple tale used it as analogy.

There is news today that greenhouse gas emissions have reached a concentration of 455ppm (parts per million), ten years earlier than predicted based on past trends. If you accept the science of human-induced global warming, you’ll likely be upset. It means that the threshold to a two-degrees-celsius temperature rise has passed – and a host of remorseless knock-on effects are increasingly probable, as are recounted in this video clip.

With such news comes the implication that there is little cause for hope. The future for the human species as a whole, or the majority of the global human population (some may survive), is looking very precarious. It is as if we are being served with the diagnosis of a terminal illness.

So what now?

As the teller of the above tale went on to ask, if faced with this diagnosis and the news we have only six months to live, do we give up and abandon ourselves to recklessness? Or do we face the future with dignity, face the facts, squarely acknowledging our role in our predicament, and prepare for our own transition from this life?

I agreed, we should hope the latter – for psychological, aesthetic and moral reasons. Littering the pavement is ugly and just doesn’t feel good. Also, predictions are not the same as actuality. The complete catastrophe or holocaust scenarios have not been reached. Warnings are not the same as certainty. We may avoid the direst outcomes through our ingenuity. And notwithstanding the warnings of rational and sane people, the world does not work in straightforward ways. There is plenty of indeterminacy and non-linearity in the universe to mean unforeseen dynamics may not necessitate worst-case scenarios; there is so much we do not know. And miracles do happen.

So, whilst the situation is not looking good, we do not need to lose hope or heart.

Which leads me to another story that moved me today; it doesn’t answer the above questions – but it is related.

A colleague was working in Southern Sudan with a community of women who had lost their men-folk in the civil war, and who had set up their own community in an area that I understood to be remote and arid. These traumatised women found some solace in planting, and tending, a garden of cultivated flowers around the perimeter fence of their compound. This was no trivial undertaking; the water they poured on the flower-beds was a precious commodity. (My colleague worked with them to grow tomatoes, too, but these met with less interest).

One day, the compound came under attack from the air, and the women fled to a gully as their village was bombed. Their over-riding concern, as testified by my colleague, was not for their houses or livestock, but for their flowers.

– from

Living beyond our means

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Today, October 6th 2007, is Ecological Debt Day –

Humanity’s Ecological Footprint is almost thirty per cent larger than the planet’s productivity this year. In other words, it now takes more than one year and three months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in a single year.

See the Global Footprint Network’s website for more, for example on how the date was calculated and the meanings of ecological debt and overshoot. News courtesy of Treehugger.

When approached at a national level, then the calendar dates are different; the UK, apparently, already went into debt in April of this year.