Archive for the ‘Covid-19’ Category

Book Review: What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries

This book essentially says, if humanity had paid more attention to how nature deals with the uncertainties of life on Earth, then we might have avoided some of its calamities – for want of a better word. Of course, there are two so-called calamities afflicting humanity at the moment; namely, a global pandemic and climate change.

One can often tell the whether the author truly has something to say in the final chapter. Can the content be summarised and rendered coherent? Does it hang together? In this case, I am not entirely sure. In fact, the author herself admits it:

In a fit of writer’s block for this final chapter, I ventured downtown to the New York Public Library to see for myself the tiny Hunt-Lenox globe with medieval-style etchings of dragons and strange sea creatures…etched pictures of dragons and monsters signalled seas and lands not yet seen by European eyes, although other peoples had lived in those lands for eons.


The dragons, of course, represent all of the things that humanity has not yet discovered. But in getting to where humanity sits currently, the global commons have been well-and-truly “over-grazed” and pathogens serially mis-managed, despite the lessons of history, let alone nature. I’ll return to the calamity shortly, but DeFreis does discuss what humans have learned, though probably inadvertently.

Ancient trees had arteries and veins in their leaves that if severed by a pest – or just something that ate them – the effect on the overall plant would be significant in a detrimental way. The ancient tree is the Gingko, which eventually evolved a toxin to put off insects. But other plants and trees evolved alternative approaches such as “loopy veins”. In the event of part of the leaf succumbing to insect lunch, the sugars created in the leaves could still be delivered to the rest of the tree because they could be re-routed. The most obvious human-created analogy of this is the internet’s packet system whereby the data generated by this blog are put into small packages and sent on their way, often taking different routes and then reconstituted in the reader’s computer and browser. However, much of the human world is hub-and-spoke; i.e. centralised. When things go wrong, bottlenecks occur and all things – commodities, manufacturing components, finished products, foodstuffs – get jammed. In the case of food, hunger ensues.

DeFreis (right) writes extensively about pathogens and viruses in the human and animal world. In the human world, in the absence of politicians, viruses have been dealt with and eradicated by science on the one hand, and (disease) management on the other. Management here is track-and-trace as well as equitable global distribution of vaccines and other technologies. As with Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, we can learn from ants, bees and termites. Ants, famous for living cheek-by-jowl, secrete disinfectant into their nests collected from wood resin. Termites spread their own faeces in their nest benefitting from antimicrobial properties (that seems counter-intuitive). Bees can kill pathogens by flapping their wings! And so on. Ultimately, though, highly social creatures can isolate their kin should they succumb to disease. Primarily, this is to protect the queen and not for the benefit of the sick individuals.

Moving on from viruses and disease, DeFreis talks about the commons – the atmosphere, the seas, water and land. I had not previously been aware of Garrett Hardin, a man who believed that the solution to the commons was to de-commonise them, enclose them and “protect” them from over-exploitation. DeFreis counters his work with a celebration of the studies of Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated that human beings can adequately manage and protect the commons. They do not need permission by a central authority. However, one size does not fit all; what works in one place, does not in others. This is, of course, part of the problem. People have to be given the space and time to work things out, set quotas and agree sanctions for those who either free-ride or break the rules.

Talking about breaking the rules, I had equally not previously been aware of the Biosphere experiment in Oracle, Arizona, back in 1991. Three men and three women entered a CELSS – closed ecosystem life support system – and stayed there for two years testing whether it was possible to replicate the Earth’s life support systems (with a view to building one on the Moon or a planet). It was funded by a Texan billionaire, Edward P Bass, the Elon Musk or his time, perhaps. It took 11 years to build. Nothing that was not already in the CELSS when they entered would be added. It was not plain sailing – crops were blighted by pests and the air became thin as the plants generated carbon dioxide and oxygen mysteriously disappeared.

And so back to what nature would do. Nature is parsimonious. The limiting factor is always energy. All energy is derived from the sun. First in plants, then animals and humans. Most animals conserve as much energy as they can. Certainly through a winter, food can be in short supply. However, nature also builds in redundancy. Those loopy leaves use more energy to build, but when under attack, they are a life saver. Some humans have adopted this principle in their products. Most aeroplanes have redundancy – if one part fails, another kicks in. Apollo 11 would not have made it to the moon had it not been for Margaret Hamilton’s redundant computer code! But our economy is parsimonious – global supply chains do not react well to disruption, something that is increasingly occurring.

Pumpjacks, Kern River Oil Field, California

Our economy is different in another way, too. It is extractive. Its whole rationale is perpetual growth. Its metrics – productivity, GDP – are just wrong. They perpetuate the extraction and ignore wellbeing. Moreover, instead of generating energy sustainably – from the sun as plants do – we draw on stored reserves of energy in fossil fuels. Growth is only possible by doing that. Nature does not do that. Nature is not capitalist. It does manage its commons – or it did until homo sapiens disrupted the equilibrium. DeFreis does not engage with this. The reality of an economic system that destroys not only itself by undermining the life-support systems of the planet is glossed over. There is no system change needed, only a closer attention to what nature would do.

I can see why this is not tackled. Authors who do end up being criticised like Andreas Malm was on publication of his book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is not pretty. But neither is climate change.


Ruth DeFreis: By One Earth Future – in the 21st Century: Ruth DeFries, CC BY 3.0,

Pumpjacks in Kern ROF, California: By Antandrus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Postscript to travelling during a pandemic

About 3 hours ago, the British Covid-19 surveillance service (or whatever it is called), phoned me to check that I was behaving myself; i.e. self-isolating. I was also asked to confirm my year of birth and reminded of the symptoms of Covid-19. If you get a call from a 0300 number, probably worth answering it to limit the badgering. I do not usually answer such numbers, but I just had a feeling.

Shareholders against the planet – knowingly or unknowingly

Stelios Haji-Ioannou (right) is founder and major shareholder (about 34 per cent) in easyJet, the budget airline. When he established the airline that challenged incumbent “full-service” airlines back in 1995, climate change was not well understood in business circles (though as we know, the science was maturing and the Earth summit had taken place 3 years’ earlier in Rio). Easyjet is now a very large airline with over 300 aircraft and a market capitalisation of £4bn.

In recent times airlines have become environmental villains responsible for almost 3 per cent of all carbon emissions (and about 12 per cent of all emissions from transport). The low-cost model of easyJet and others has encouraged travel and made it possible to commute over long distances. This has been regarded as a good thing economically. A global pandemic, however, sees airlines at the forefront of a new battle against another invisible enemy, Covid-19. That market capitalisation has collapsed, and the 300 aircraft grounded indefinitely. Easyjet – along with other airlines – may well seek state aid to support the business through the crisis.

The question of state aid for airlines – major contributors to climate emissions and hence climate change – puts the Government in a difficult position. Neo-Liberal Governments like that in the UK are generally opposed to state support. Indeed they do not even protect strategic industries and businesses from foreign buyers. So any support eventually given to scheduled airlines serving a free market (I accept that some airlines serve niche, fragile and social markets such as Logan Air) will challenge neo-liberal ideology and raise questions about ministers’ proximity to business leaders in the industry. Cash transfers to easyJet would lead to Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic receiving similar. That would be difficult to countenance.

The management at easyJet now has an added problem. Knowing full well that their industry is a problem in the carbon economy, there are two – what one calls – mitigating policies. One is more effective that the other, but neither are a solution. The first is offsetting; in the easyJet case, that involves committing to planting trees, though there are many offset schemes that involve investing in developing countries’ own mitigation policies. The second is buying a fleet of more efficient aeroplanes. Easyjet has opted for a fleet of Airbus A320 Neos and they are arriving in batches.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou is not, seemingly, very happy with this. He is now calling for the whole order to be cancelled. He believes, with some justification, seemingly, that the order threatens the solvency of the company. Moreover, as Nils Pratley in the Guardian writes, the company may need to be recapitalised: “Haji-Ioannou says he would support a rights issue – as he should given that his family has collected £620m in dividends since 2011, including £60m this month – but he is vowing to make his backing dependent on an Airbus cancellation. Given the size of his shareholding, he has some clout.”

So here is the conflict of capitalism laid bare. Without the new planes the company will see carbon emissions increase and probably be subject to some regulation or tax (or both). The company will also lose considerable customer credibility on anything it says in the future about caring for the environment. But with the planes, at best shareholders will have to recapitalise, at worst, the company goes under. Plus, very rich man determines the future of the planet. Which side are you on?

Picture: Audiopedia

Nudged into not wasting

It can take a serious nudge to get people to do things that modern living has sanctioned as not necessary, such as not wasting anything. Covid-19 and impending climate change have been nudging me. I’ve also been nudged – or prodded – by experiencing a self-inflicted reduced income. Over the years, I’ve been pretty good at not wasting, but a few things have found their way into my bins.

I am a big fan of brocolli. I do not recall it actually existing when I was growing up, but it is ubiquitous now. That stalk has always been a bit of a problem. In to the bin, out of sight, has been its normal fate. In recent weeks, I’ve been eating it. Largely in soups. This one on the left has a couple of stalks in it, plus a load of celery that was beyond crunch, put perfectly nutrious. Also in there is pepper, onion, silken tofu and, of course, water. It looks a bit anaemic, but it does the job. I think a good pot adds to it. This one from a ceramacist working out of Beverley in East Yorkshire. Her name currently escapes me. I’m a bit of a sucker for ceramics.

If you want to know more about not wasting food, this is Alex Andreou talking sense.

My new photographic project

I got out my Minolta X-300 (left) the other day. There was a film in it; about 10 frames left. Having been on strike for part of the previous month, a bit of photography, I thought, would be cathartic. I took a few pictures of fellow strikers, but pictures of marches are not really very interesting. On this blog I have managed to get quite a following around my photographs of cigarette posters over the last 8 years. One aspect of that is how ephemeral they are. A campaign poster can be up for as little as a fortnight, and then it is gone. So I have captured a record of something that is no more; though the original plan was simply to ridicule the concept of cigarette advertising, not to create a repository of advertising posters. But there you go.

It made me think about other ephemeral things in society. I wish, probably like many others, that I had captured more images of normal life throughout my time (I’m now 55) living in the UK; many of the things that we thought were permanent were not. And things are still changing. I gave some thought to the ephemerality around me. What have I taken for granted and may disappear in the not too distant future? The answer, pillar boxes! So, I began photographing pillar boxes. For those of you reading from abroad, a pillar box is a place to post letters – essentially, hand them over to the post office to deliver to whoever. A service very much in decline.

ER Pillar box, Marina, Hastings, 13 March, 2020

I discovered that many of the very solid steel ones are being replaced. There is an old grand post office building here in Hastings, UK (right) where the boxes have been replaced by much smaller versions reflecting less traffic but also the relocation of the main post- office counter. So, I think, perhaps, that it is about time that I captured the variety of pillar boxes with my camera. However, that does not seem enough. Then I came up with the idea that I should try to combine pillar boxes and another passion of mine – and something else that is ephemeral – buses. I’ve started with the shot (left). With a film camera, it is tougher than it looks. The bus passes a pace, the light has to be sufficient and in the right place. But as a first effort, I’m quite pleased with the result.