Wednesday 25 April 2012

Glacial till

You'll find stones like this everywhere, ripped out of mountains by the ice sheets that covered this land, transported back and forth as they moved, and then deposited when they melted. Sometimes they are obviously very different than the stone around them -- granite in limestone country, for example. These are in Tuamgraney, County Clare.

Saturday 21 April 2012


I spend eight hours a day in an office in Dublin, three hours a day on the bus there and back, and an hour or so sipping coffee and talking with friends at lunch, and I just figured out how much of that time I spend without a radio blaring loudly in the background.

It’s zero. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, which has no reason to exist but seems to grow louder each year. Most places play the same twelve songs over and over, the reproductive and scatological obsessions of adolescents played to underage children and pensioners alike, but the choice of music is not the main issue. The problem is that most people I know have ceased to notice this background and talk over it --- again, more loudly each year. 

When I ask, shouting to be heard over the speakers, if they could turn it off, most people look at me befuddled; they are unaware the noise exists. They are obviously not enjoying something they are unaware of, so you might ask why they play the speakers at all. Yet when I ask bus drivers and store managers to turn the noise off, or even down, they look offended. 

My co-workers moved into a new office recently, and the first thing they did was to turn on the radio; I asked why, and one said, surprised, “Well – we need to have something on.” When the radio was off and he heard only the hum of computers, the click of keyboards, the whirr of printers, the chatter of co-workers and the distant murmur of cars and horses outside, he felt unnerved. 

We live with a great deal of background noise – a city bus idles at 90 decibels, and as the decibel scale is logarithmic that level is 10 times louder than 80 decibels. Many people today, who grew up with rock concerts and background construction, can expect to lose their hearing at a much earlier age than earlier generations -- a 1997 study of the elderly found that hearing loss doubled in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994, and we are almost 20 years further on from that. The constant noise of speakers might be an attempt to drown out the increasingly loud background, but it stacks the mountain of cacophony ever higher. 

Most of us can only choose to buy our own headphones and MP3 players, meaning that I and all my fellow bus passengers spend the hours locked in our private reveries. Everyone has their own musical tastes, of course, and at six in the morning most people do not feel the mood for conversation. The problem is that everyone around me feels compelled to isolate themselves inside headphones; even worse than everyone being forced to listen to the same electronic media, everyone is forced to listen to their own.

I see the effects of this with friends and family, some of whom listen to Rush Limbaugh, others to Noam Chomsky, others to the Bott Radio Network. People can listen to whatever they want, but if they spend all their lives enveloped in the political and religious bubble of a single group, they lose the ability to commonly understand events. 

Like any of us, they hear the latest news headlines and incorporate them into a larger story that they believe is happening all around them – I write about how the world’s fossil fuels are running down, and since fossil fuels power our travel, our farming, our electricity and our human economy, their slow decline means those things will change or be destroyed in what has been called the “Long Emergency.” Since I see that as the most central issue we face, I tend to see everything else --- fuel costs, the Arab Spring, the Eurozone crisis – as part of that larger story. 

If, however, you see the overarching story of the world as a gradual ascent of humanity through progress, or as a battle between Christianity and Islam, or as a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy traditional values, then you will accept any new information only as part of that larger story, and fasten it to the rest of the story wherever it seems to fit. 

If we all spend our lives listening to our own private stations, watching our own television programmes and visiting our own pet bloggers, we will not merely disagree on what is happening around us. We will not have the common language to express disagreement, or to compare notes. We will not realise that other people’s world differs from ours.  

I do get to hear some of what others are listening to, though, as their music is turned up louder than their earpieces can contain. In what Atlantic magazine writer Brian Eha called “bleed-over, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others,” living in the presence of ubiquitous noise creates a kind of arms race between eardrums. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing. 

More than that, though, this ubiquitous noise brings a psychological toll. We all live in a kind of enforced solitude now, yet cannot enjoy the tranquillity that made solitude desirable. Eha cites studies by developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell, who found that excessive noise warps children’s attention and memory, and makes them withdraw from talking with peers. Yet she also found that, when they are accustomed to working with noise, they cannot work without it; the quality of their work deteriorates. Finally, she found that when children learn to passively accept “uncontrollable noise” in the background, they show a “learned helplessness” to changing the world around them. 

No other society has ever performed this kind of giant experiment on themselves over generations, so no one has ever measured the long-term effects. I do know, though, that between the earphones, the MP3 player and the earplugs, a normal life is getting expensive.

“An Increasing Prevalence of Hearing Impairment and Associated Risk Factors over Three Decades of the Alameda County Study, by Margaret  Wallhagen, PhD, RN, CS, William J. Strawbridge, PhD, Richard D. Cohen, MA, and George A. Kaplan, PhD, American Journal of Public Health, March 1997, Vol. 87, No. 3.
“The Effects of Noise on Pre-school Children’s Pre-Reading Skills,” by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2000) 20, 91-97.
“The Sound of Solitude,” Brian Eha, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Urban wildlife

In the shadow of London’s National Gallery and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields lies Trafalgar Square, with bronze lions the size of our car. Now, moreover, they can be seen as intended; until a few years ago they were famously covered in pigeon poop. 

My college in Missouri had this problem when I went to school there; we students loved feeding the pigeons, but they had a tendency to exert the prerogative of flying animals. The college responded, as I recall, by setting out poisoned feed, killing not only the pigeons but, presumably, every other animal that ate the feed, and every animal that ate those animals. I don’t know what kind of poison they used, but I hope it was something that breaks down quickly in the soil once all those animals died. 

Londoners had a wiser solution, one that cut down on the pigeons and kept the remaining ones fit: hawks. When I passed by an excited crowd were gathered around a Mr. and Mrs. Hawk, who seemed to regard the human herd with nonchalance.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Away on business

 If anyone needs me, I'll be here for a few days.

Photo: Taken from across the River Thames.

Saturday 14 April 2012


I’ve been teaching The Girl card games, and was reminded how fundamental and commonplace cards were in our culture until the last few decades. For generations everyone played cards; men left the house to play poker with their mates, women played bridge with their neighbours, and workmen, sailors or train passengers played cards to pass the idle hours. 

A 1940 survey of residents in 24 American cities found that cards were Americans’ favourite pastime; 87 per cent of homes had a deck of cards, more than had radios or telephones. In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam notes that trends in card playing followed other signs of social involvement – steady growth in the first three decades of the century, a slump during the Great Depression, and then explosive growth in the years after World War II. 

Perhaps the most amazing statistic: a 1961 survey found that one of every five adults was part of a regular bridge foursome. Just bridge, regularly.

My grandparents grew up playing cards around the kitchen table, with siblings in the evening and with cousins at family gatherings. The friendly competition smoothed the rough edges of family gatherings. I still see this in the pubs here, where locals gather in the pub in the evenings to play 42, but even here they are elderly; the young men are staring at the television. 

Today card games have become a rare and curious event; I know few games, and have trouble finding anyone who plays cards to teach me more. The decline has been even more precipitous because most games require multiple players, so once the number of able and willing players in an area declines past a certain critical mass, the game becomes effectively extinct. 

Still, I want to pass on what I know to The Girl, in the same way I want to pass on rhymes and folk songs, because they were popular for a reason, and we might return to a culture where people find them useful.  

Let’s say more of us lose our jobs, or see more power outages, or have less ability to drive around, or have to move in together. Let’s say more of us are cooped up together, with people we don’t know well, and need to pass the time. It will be a situation earlier generations would have taken in stride with a pocket deck.

Photo: Poker Game, courtesy of Wikicommons. 

Tuesday 10 April 2012


Each spring here sees a remarkable sprouting of indigo across the woods: bluebells, which bloom profusely until the overhanging leaves grow back in full, and the forest floor grows dark again. Other places in the world see such an annual blossoming, but few have such uniformity.

As glaciers a mile deep retreated from Ireland and plants and animals migrated up the the exposed land -- tundra, then conifers, then the cold rainforest that remained until humans -- the sea flooded in, cutting off England from the continent and Ireland from England. So England wound up with fewer plants and animals than the continent, and Ireland even less. Surprising as it sounds, rabbits and fallow deer are not native to either island -- they were brought by Normans less than a millennia ago. Red deer and roe deer made it to England, but the latter never reached Ireland. Neither, of course, did snakes.

Plants did the same: only some of the Continent's variety worked its way across the warming land before an ocean rushed in. The bluebells were one of the ones that made it.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Medicines and placebos

A few decades ago “alternative” medicines mainly came from “head shops” and other fringe outlets that catered to the then-marginal counterculture. Today every health food store, pharmacist and supermarket sells a range of “natural” pills, juices, salves, teas and powders that promise to cure your cold, detoxify your body, sleep soundly, stave off illness, brighten your mood, remember your anniversary and return to the size you were when you were a teenager. Advertisements tout nutritionists, homeopaths, herbalists and therapists of all kinds to read your chi, your chakras or some other kind of pseudo-spiritual “energy.” In short, our poor health and dissatisfaction has created whole new fields of capitalism. 

It’s not difficult to see why; we’re getting sicker across the industrialised world, perhaps most in my native USA, where more than a third of the population is obese, and another third is overweight. Chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes have created skyrocketing medical costs – up 58 per cent in just nine years, according to one study. 

We can easily think of many reasons for this. For one thing, most Westerners are surrounded by cheap and unhealthy food. An increasing number of my own countrymen live in “food deserts”—especially, ironically in farmland -- where junk food is the only thing available for many miles. Most of us in the West live sedentary lives at work and home, working longer and more stressful hours in this declining economy, and have less to show for it. Moreover, that post-World-War-II Baby Boom is now entering pension age, so a disproportionate percentage of the population is getting much sicker. So we need doctors more, and can afford them less. 

Even those Westerners who can afford treatment don’t always get it; the number of parents who refuse to give their children vaccinations, for example, increased by 77 per cent from 2003 to 2008. Part of this might be because modern medicine has done its job so well, wiping out almost all major diseases in a mere century; if you’ve never heard of anyone getting polio, tuberculosis or measles, you might not be motivated to protect yourself against them. We have quickly forgotten what it was like many generations ago, when most children did not survive into adulthood and everyone knew someone who died or were crippled by these diseases. 

Part of it, however, might stem from an increasing scepticism of a medical establishment that seems so distant and costs so much, the same sentiment that makes pharmaceutical companies a reliable villain in Hollywood movies. Americans in particular must pay exorbitant rates for prescription drugs, so the companies charging such rates turn to other options. Unsurprisingly, then, more people spend money on alternative therapies -- Americans spent almost $15 billion on herbal pills, a third as much as was spent on conventional pharmaceuticals. 

If you think that medicine, like all aspects of modern society, will face a crisis in the coming decades, you might be inclined to cut alternative medicine some slack. If our fuel, economic and climate crises deepen, won’t fewer of us be able to afford CAT scans and chemotherapy, even if hospitals still have them or the electricity to power them?  Or if we value a more traditional way of life, shouldn’t we be exploring more traditional cures, and rediscover how to heal ourselves with a field of wildflowers?
Let’s get a few things straight. Firstly, words like “alternative” or “natural” cover a lot of ground, and will encompass methods that work and those that don’t. All foods affect the body – they’re food – and some have long-noticed effects beyond mere nutrition; dandelions, for example, are famous diuretics, as their colloquial name “piss-a-bed” suggests. 

Almost all humans in history knew a great deal about the plants all around them from the time they were children, and knew them as intimately as we do the sexual lives of celebrities. We would do well to rediscover that knowledge, and tend to our own health as much as we can before having to see a doctor. We can probably do more by simply eating well, exercising and spending time with loved ones, however, than we can by eating herbs once we get sick.

As much local knowledge as those practitioners of herbal medicine had, they lived only to about 40 years on average, until science brought microscopes, trial and error and peer review into the medical world in the 19th century. Few ancient skeletons appear older than that, whether Neanderthals from 100,000 years ago or bodies preserved in Irish bogs from 2,000 years ago. Even a century ago in the wealthy European nations, most people died before they were 50. Herbal wisdom could do some good, but it was no substitute for clean water and sterilisation.  

Secondly, most herbal medicines that actually work were isolated chemically long ago and sold in pure form – aspirin, for example, from willow bark. We still use them, but have stopped calling them herbal medicine. In order to become medicine, however, they had to stand up to scientific tests, and that’s where most alternative therapies fall apart. 

If we are less likely to be able to afford conventional medicine in the future, we might want to know what plants work as a backup; for example, to boil willow bark to make a headache cure. This should be backup knowledge for an emergency, though, for sterilised and standardised amounts are surely preferable to unknown amounts.

Thirdly, companies have an interest in patenting and selling cures that work, and pharmaceutical companies must follow public law to prove their products work. If such companies could spare themselves the trouble of manufacturing antidepressants and just patent an herb instead, they would save themselves money. The herbal cures that work were patented long ago; if an herbal cure has never been patented to make a profit, it probably doesn’t work. 

A landmark ten-year study by the US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine tested a wide variety of common herbal cures and found that none of them performed any better than sugar-pill placebos at alleviating the conditions they were supposed to cure. Specifically:

  • Gingko had no effect on memory.
  • Saw palmetto did nothing for prostate problems.
  • Shark cartilage was useless against cancer.
  • Black cohosh was useless for menopausal hot flashes.
  • Echinacea, at least in their experiments, did not help with colds.
Fourthly, alternative medicine is an industry, just like the mainstream pharmaceutical industry, run by executives in suits, making pills in mechanised factories. Their packaging might have pictures of sunbeams and rainforests, but they were made by corporations just like conventional remedies; the only difference is that the alternative medicine market, in many countries, doesn’t have to follow as many rules about what’s in their products. 

This is one of the most important things to take away: Most herbal pills don’t necessarily contain any of the substance they advertise on the package. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found “high content variability” in herbal pills sold, with most companies not even testing how much gingko, say, is in the gingko pills. 

A 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that only half the Echinacea pills purchased contained the amount they were supposed to, and 10 per cent contained no Echinacea whatsoever. 

In addition, remember that “holistic” medicines don’t just come from Chinese monks or Amazonian Indians; “holistic” refers to the idea that the body has essential elements that need to be kept in balance, like yin and yang in Chinese medicine or chakras in India. Western tradition has the four humours, used from Polybus in the fifth century BC to the beginning of the 19th century AD, and which we still invoke when we refer to someone as melancholy or sanguine. 

Western writers came up with some creative cures using this method – when 11th-century Arabic physician Ibn Butlan saw a patient who felt cold and clammy, for example, he recommended eating a rooster, an animal that was hot and dry. It might sound ridiculous, but all other holistic medicines work on the same principle. 

Holistic theory was used because no one really understood how the body worked. Why did humours continue to be invoked for 2,400 years if their recommendations were so ridiculous -- she-goat urine poured into the ears for a stiff neck, to use an example from Pliny the Elder? Perhaps for the same reason many modern alternative medicines appear to work; people use them to treat problems like a cold or injury that eventually get better on their own anyway, leading the patient to think that the prescribed remedy was responsible. In cases where a patient gets measurably worse, perhaps, a certain anthropic principle comes into play; those patients who die aren’t around to complain that the cures didn’t work. Or – again, like modern alternative therapies – they treated symptoms that are particularly hard to measure, like “fatigue.”

If someone were to open a storefront today selling she-goat urine or literal snake oil, though, they would get few customers and might be shut down by the authorities. Nor, if your appendix bursts in China, will surgeons give you such treatments – they have modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, and use them. Why, then, do these now-disproven folk cures thrive in countries far removed from their origin?

I suspect that the reason has little to do with the medicines themselves, and everything to do with the Sixties counterculture, where most of the alternative medicines were first popularised. Countercultural types harshly criticised anything mainstream, modern, or Western – and criticism is often healthy. The problem was that they suspended such judgement for anything from Native Americans, Chinese, Africans or any other culture. 

Simply because we are willing to respect or explore a foreign culture does not mean we have to suspend the burden of proof. If the Chinese had been the civilisation to break out first and conquer the world, I would have hoped they would have treated the Beatitudes with the respect they deserve, but I would hope they would test Pliny and find that his cures don’t work.

Modern medicine works because researchers came up with a theory based on what they know, they tested various techniques and substances in laboratories, then on animals, and finally on humans, and made sure their findings were peer-reviewed before going out to the world. That is science, and the fact that most of us are still alive testifies to the fact that it works. That, ultimately, is why this issue is important, and is about more than alternative medicine.


Many people are rightly disgusted at our modern consumer culture for one reason or another, although different groups have fixated on different aspects of it. My more devoutly Christian friends in the USA mourn the loss of traditional, close-knit families and safe communities, while rural acquaintances have watched their towns slowly die as everyone drives to Wal-Mart. My more ecological friends grieve for the loss of so much of the natural world. My more countercultural friends dislike living at the non-existent mercy of global corporations.

These groups seem to be at radically different political and religious poles, yet they all have some things in common. Most of these subcultures – American libertarians, evangelical Christians, anti-corporate activism, alternative medicine enthusiasts and the environmental movement – all originated in their modern form from the Sixties counterculture. And most of them work selflessly and industriously in ways that are counter-productive, that not only don’t help their cause but worsen the situation they set out to help.

Again, it’s easy to see why: Like many people unhappy with modern consumer culture, they want to return to the simplicity of an earlier age. Yet they must live in modern culture – like most of us, they have families and careers, commutes and mortgages. Few can simply abandon their lives and take up farming, and those that try often discover that they don’t have the self-sufficient skills of our forebears, nor are they accustomed to isolated and long hours of physical labour. Many people, struggling in this economy, could live more self-sufficiently at home and try to have the best of both worlds, but that solution does not appeal to the all-or-nothing thinking that is so popular these days.

So most people I know, in one way or another, yearn for a simpler and more natural way of life, a way to get around big government and big corporations and deal with authentic people, to buy products whose ingredients they can pronounce. And so markets and movements have arisen to meet that demand, and give people the illusion of doing that.

Most conservative Christians I know have worked, selflessly and industriously, for issues and candidates that do not make families closer or restore communities; getting the Ten Commandments put up in courthouses, for example, will not get fathers to spend more time with their sons. When I reported from small towns, most of the townspeople were fighting their towns’ decay in ways that would only harm their populations; getting some kind of gambling casino, for example, might help some people get jobs in the short term, but will make the community poorer in the long term.

Many ecologically-minded friends, likewise, rally around actions that have no effect. Some of these are harmless – turning off the lights for an hour won’t save the world any fossil fuels, but it won’t waste any more. Others might or might not do some good, depending on circumstances; how much fuel do you spend driving your plastic bottles to the recycling centre, for example, or would you be better off just re-using them at home?

Some of the ways people try to live a more natural life, however, just do harm. Refusing vaccinations does not restore the collapsing plankton levels in the ocean, it just makes your children more vulnerable to disease. Buying “herbal” medicines sends money to corporations – just corporations that can work outside of mainstream medicine’s public rules, and so get to sell things that don’t work. 

I'm neither a doctor nor a politician, but I can think of a number of ways people can improve their and their neighbours' health. They could persuade many people to garden, getting excercise and fresh vegetables. They could persuade lawmakers to force herbal companies to abide by the same standards as pharmaceutical companies. Americans, with their more complicated and expensive health care, could create a community health fund like the ones Oddfellows or Masons used to have, or that the Ithaca Fund has now: people pay a small amount into a fund to pay for the amount not covered in their insurance deductible, thus allowing them to have cheap health insurance with a high deductible. Americans could also persuade lawmakers to change health-care laws, imitating what seems to work best in other parts of the world.

If more people feel sick, stressed and helpless in years to come, however, the danger is that, instead of doing any of these real things, they will be a prime target for hucksters selling placebos – things that only make them think they are fighting the good fight. 

Chinese medicine - seahorses.
Nineteenth-century medicines.
Nineteenth-century advertisement.
Chinese medicine - deer penis.
Nineteenth-century advertisement for tansy pills.  
All photos courtesy of Wikicommons.


More than a third of all Americans are obese, and more than another third are overweight: Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2007–2008

The number is projected to increase by more than one percent per year by 2030, resulting in an estimated chronically ill population of 171 million: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & Partnership for Solutions. "Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care." Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD (September 2004 Update).

Chronic illnesses cause about 70% of deaths in the US and in 2002 chronic conditions (heart disease, cancers, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and kidney diseases) were 6 of the top ten causes of mortality in the general US population: National Center for Health Statistics. “ Health, United States” / 2004.

Amount of herbal substance in herbal supplements: “Lack of herbal supplement characterization in published randomized controlled trials,” American Journal of Medicine, Oct. 2005.

39 percent of parents refused or delayed vaccinations: according to the study by the Centers for 
Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Rochester and the National Opinion Research Center.

The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States:

They don’t regulate whether there is any amount of the disease in the pill: The American Journal of Medicine 2005 Oct;118(10):1087-93.