Nature confounds logic


Nature sometimes seems to confound logic.

The forest fires we’re now seeing could have been prevented, or limited, if small-scale fires had been allowed to break out more regularly. These small fires, which are a forest’s own way of keeping its ecosystem in check, burn up the brush and undergrowth on the forest floor, which would otherwise act as connecting fuel for a larger fire.

But modern forestries are eager not to let any potentially saleable wood go to waste, so they extinguish these fires quickly when they do break out. That allows the undergrowth to grow unchecked. After a period of no rain, it dehydrates and crisps up, becoming a tinderbox that allows a forest fire to spread rapidly.

I can imagine foresters thought that extinguishing small fires would prevent wildfires. In practice, it led to the opposite result. This got me thinking about other ways in which biology seems to confound ‘common sense’. When you eat too little, in the hope of losing weight, you actually lower your body’s metabolism, which cause you to put on weight. Or: when you try to reduce oil on your skin’s surface by using oil-free moisturisers and foaming cleansers to strip oil, the skin responds by producing more oil than ever, in an effort to create the anti-bacterial barrier it needs. And: the more you try to rid your environment of bacteria, viruses and germs to be ‘healthy’, the weaker the immune system gets, increasing your chances of getting ill.

All these illustrate the way in which nature — biology, by another name — will increase something just as we attempt to reduce it. Often, our understanding of nature is insufficient to create solutions for the problems we face. Unfortunately, we are all too eager to create those solutions, and too full of hubris to realise that we don’t have a full enough understanding of an entire ecosystem, or homeostatic control system, to come up with solutions for it.

Which brings me to climate change. There’s been so many fascinating articles recently on ‘solutions’ to remove carbon from the atmosphere. One of my favourites is this lengthy one on soil and its ability to sequester carbon: Can Dirt Save the Earth? What struck me, reading the article, is how inexact a science soil sequestration is, and how little data we have— which is unfortunate, at this late stage in the climate game.

But the advantage seems to be that more soil surely can’t hurt the earth, whereas other ideas for removing carbon from the atmosphere, such as dimming the sky, have an awful lot of ‘unknown unknowns’. Projects with such a goal — changing the earth’s atmosphere — cannot be tested, because: “You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere or tent off part of the atmosphere. As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary-wide implementation,” as Rutgers philosopher and climate change expert Martin Bunzl says.

Of course, the terribleness of climate change and the prospect of the earth’s sixth great mass extinction, it’s time for bold action. But seeing as we understand the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and the connection between extractivist capitalism and fossil fuels, wouldn’t it be a better idea to start there?


Football as stress relief

DhGlallXkAIXGsT.jpg-largeWatching England play has always been an excruciating experience for my generation. It’s bum-clenching, temple-pounding, teeth-grinding kind of stuff. I watch games between my fingers, or from behind cushions. Apart from the repeated trauma and particular sting of lost penalty shoot-outs, there lingers always a terrible feeling that something is going to go wrong: the captain will get sent off for savagely kicking a member of opposition, the defence will fall apart like a badly packed kebab, a country with a tiny population of whale hunters will beat us.

Which is why, last weekend, I entered the England match as ‘WATCH ENGLAND LOSE’ on our weekend to-do list. My husband, somehow tricked into believing England are a good side because the country hosts the Premier League, couldn’t understand my pessimism. ‘Because they always lose,’ I explained. ‘Even if the other team are crap. But especially if they’re half-good.’

But somehow, instead of causing me angst, watching football has brought me a new kind of a calm. Perhaps it’s because this World Cup has been different, with England actually progressing, albeit with assistance from a laughably easy route to the semis: Tunisia, Panama, Colombia, Sweden. And that the team seemed to be improving match by match (until the semi-final), rather than imploding like a badly-trained kit of pigeons as usual.

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Silly at scale

I have little truck with the ‘go vegan for your health’ argument making the rounds at the moment, finding the science flimsy, the proponents shrill and blinkered, and the whole thing rather faddish.

That said, in terms of the environment, I do think that everyone in the developed world needs to eat less meat, and to treat meat less as a standard centrepiece or default component of a meal than something special. I have moved on from my paleo diet days, despite crediting the diet from saving my health from a decade of bad digestion and blood sugar zigzags on a vegetarian diet*.

What started to shift my thinking was seeing my diet at scale, and considering its environmental impact. A meat-heavy diet, while being very healthy, is an incredibly selfish way to eat when you multiply it out.

Where I work, there’s a restaurant downstairs that prepares a staff meal for all the members every lunch, much like it does for the restaurant staff before service. It’s vegetarian 99% of the time. When I was working freelance from home, I was more used to having eggs, tinned fish, or other animal protein at lunch. But now, seeing the vats of food prepared to feed 200 people, it seems insane that so much animal protein should be prepared for a single meal.

The casualness of mass meat consumption — that a sandwich shop will have two vegetarian options out of ten, that a restaurant menu will only have a single token ‘vegetarian’ option — has begun to shock me. The sheer numbers of fowl, four-legged beast and seafood delivered to an average restaurant sounds like some obscene Edwardian feast. Should we be doing this at every meal?

On Saturday night, in north London, I and a friend wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. I was hankering for something flavoursome and vegetable-rich. We passed many restaurants where there was a sole vegetarian option on the menu, either pasta, gnocchi, or a rice dish. Somewhere around, there was a raw gluten-free vegan place, my friend mentioned. But what about the middle ground? The place that offers ample vegetarian options without shouting about it — that offers enough options to let you ‘flexitarian’ your way through without even realising you didn’t opt for the meat this time?

Finally, we came across one place that had the potential to entice punters inside without them realising that there was no meat on the menu. Comprising of plates like golden beetroot borscht, crusted duck egg on parsnip mash, spinach crostata, cavolo nero with white bean broth and Jerusalem artichokes and so on, the absence of meat was softly murmured, rather than righteously announced. Perfect. This is how it should be: accidentally vegetarian.

*When every protein is accompanied by a carb, and you can’t digest carbs or raw food very well, and have a poor appetite, vegetarianism and veganism are not great diets to follow. You need to be able to consume and properly digest a larger volume of food on a vegetarian diet to get enough vitamins and minerals. Oddly, most people don’t see meat as very nutritious, even though it is one of the most nutritionally dense foods per serving (especially liver and offal). Michael Pollan explains this blind spot by saying that most people are taught a food pyramid that is mutually exclusive: meat is associated only with ‘protein’, fruit and vegetables are associated with vitamins and minerals, and grains and potatoes with carbohydrates, despite the fact that all three categories contain a mix of these three macronutrients.

Against Convenience

It started four years ago, walking the sodden streets of London with a Japanese friend. Forced to wind around an interminable diversion at London Bridge, I moaned to him about the inconvenience of London compared to Tokyo, expecting him to empathise. Instead, he said, “What are you complaining about? A bit of inconvenience is good for you. It makes us human.”

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what convenience means — what it is, who it’s for, and what it’s doing to us. The definition of convenience is something that saves time and/or energy, but it’s manifested in extremely diverse ways, from ready-meals to sensor-led traffic lights to longer opening hours to lifts to good service and tear-open packaging. Convenience is patently wonderful and liberating.

But it isn’t all good. Convenience saves us from making an effort, or rather, expending mental, social or physical energy, and in doing so, seems to be making us stupider, less empathetic, less patient, more unfit, and fatter. And as most things that save humans energy require energy from somewhere else (an escalator instead of the stairs; a Deliveroo instead of a walk to the supermarket) and more packaging, it’s also doing damage to the environment.

Despite that, I hear very little criticism of convenience itself. It seems as if it’s an inviolably good thing, particularly in a time when work needlessly sucks up so much of our time and you’re never more than a conversation away from the word burn-out.
Plus, how much drudgery has convenience saved women from?

Convenience certainly has its perks, many of which I wouldn’t be without. But while innovation in convenience solves some very real problems (such as lifts providing access to those using buggies or wheelchairs; household appliances and supermarkets saving busy parents time and stress), they’re often used by people who don’t suffer from the problem they were designed to solve. Most people didn’t need Uber.

I see much convenience as an unfortunate consequence of our overly burdened lifestyles, not something that will ultimately liberate us to spend time on more interesting or fulfilling pastimes. It’s a crutch that has emerged in response to late-day capitalism and its emphasis on extreme specialisation, where you are encouraged to do just one thing for X hours a day, enabling you to pay someone else to cook for you and do your shopping and clean your shirts and hang up your shelves and whatever else the gig economy offers.

The problem is that hyper-convenience results in a rough deal for workers even as it promises paradise to consumers. And most of us, in the absence of trust funds and generous parental support and other miracles, spend most of our time as a worker, not a consumer. Is it really worth spending 8 or 10 hours grinding away to serve people just to taste those two hours of ‘delight’, when someone else is working hard to please you? This reaches its most extreme and logical conclusion in the gig economy, where we order things online on a whim and allow uninsured, underpaid and exploited drivers to deliver them to our houses.

And even when they’re replaced by robots (the uncomfortably blatant implication of so many gig-economy business plans), the rest of us still have a problem: we’re becoming spoilt, impatient and lazy slobs, unable to manage the most basic of survival skills, and using up well more than our fair share of energy paying others to enact them for us.

That has repercussions for our health, too. We think that ultimate convenience will free us to spend time on things we actually want to do (such as long walks and dance classes), rather than things we have to do (like lugging heavy shopping home on foot), but it turns out that is a misjudged strategy for health. Many studies suggest now that it’s low-intensity steady state activity, such as hoovering, cutting the lawn, walking up stairs, carrying shopping and so on, that promotes balanced health and longevity, rather than sporadic intense hours at the gym and the rest of the day sitting. In other words, it’s actually all the small inconveniences in life that keep us fit, not scheduled activity. And perhaps we should embrace them, since it’s a lot easier to do unavoidable than to muster up willpower for explicitly planned activity.

Evidently, there’s a lot packed into the issue of convenience, and I’d like to unpack it a lot more. I’ve been squirreling away these thoughts for months, trying to think it through and read around it to make my argument water-tight. But now, I think it’s better to probably air my thought process as I go along, absorbing feedback and criticisms to refine my narrative, rather than try to cultivate an argument in isolation.

In the next few entries, I’d like to explore the issues of specialisation vs. generalisation, what ‘survival skills’ (should) constitute in 2018, why convenience is fueled by growth-for-growth’s sake, Japan (where convenience is taken to its longer extreme) versus the Netherlands (where inconvenience is a way of life), what forms of convenience could be considered wholly good, and the impact of convenience on our mental, social and physical health. Join me! And let me know your thoughts.


Olympic destructionism

olympic stadium

The stadium is half gone. When I cycled past this morning, the cranes were already pecking at the rubble like vultures, the half-demolished stands hovering forlornly over them. Dust rising from the concrete guts.

They didn’t really need to get rid of it. The stadium itself was perfectly serviceable; the gym beneath, the best-kept secret in Tokyo. It was a relic of the 1960s, and the equipment embodied the training philosophy of the era: straight-forward, unapologetically hardcore. There was no padding on the machines, no TRX, no rodeo saddles for the “core”. No fucking Smith machine. Just rows of squat racks, barbells, kettlebells. It looked like the kind of place Arnie would train. No music: just the clatter of plates and heavy panting. The clientele was an incongruous mix of pensioners and powerlifters with belts and gum-guards. The middle-aged women stretched and did laps of the track, while the wiry older men did squats in their ‘80s-coloured spandex. One once coached me through the clean and jerk when he saw me squatting. There was even a separate room for Olympic lifts with a podium.

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A Constitutional Right to Consume Corn Syrup

Don’t deny me my right to diabetes

Just as cries of contempt are rising in New York over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban the serving of oversize sugary drinks, Japanese gourmands are getting ready to say goodbye to raw beef liver after it’s prohibited in restaurants from July.

Opposers of both bans have protested that they constitute an infringement of personal liberty and that the government has no right to interfere with their choice of what to eat.

I have to say I won’t miss raw liver. I have eaten it just once, drizzled in sesame oil and sprinkled with salt at a restaurant in Naka-Meguro, while still riding the euphoric carnivorous adventurism that had me gobbling up tripe, cartilage and blood after the deprivation of a misguided meatless decade. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite stomach the slimy, ferrous texture. But I’d still prefer it to a Big Gulp.

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Fukushima, one year on.

Nobuyoshi Ito in Iitate, Fukushima

The word “irradiated” has such visceral power. We imagine our guts made luminous by Ibaraki spinach, our cells scarred by Futaba beef, our hair and teeth breaking free of their moorings due to the fallout.

The invisibility of radiation polarizes reactions to it: people are either indifferent, or terrified. The former, noticing no changes in the environment around them, pay it no heed, apart from perhaps increased conscientiousness when grocery shopping. Continue reading “Fukushima, one year on.”