Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Polarisation, balance, and the EU referendum "debate"

"Damn braces; bless relaxes," wrote Blake. 

Up to a point, William.

A degree of argued opposition is essential in public life. Balance is not static; living systems maintain equilibrium through continually changing balances between opposing forces. A tightrope walker at a lethal height above the ground is not balanced in stasis; she is making small checks and balances all the time. If she achieved a frozen, static balance, she'd fall, because the wire she walks on is moving all the time.

Thus it is with politics. A perfectly static state would be a fascist dictatorship, eg North Korea. We need disagreement and argument to keep moving, keep adjusting to a changing world.

But there seems to me to be something in our culture that makes us rush to opposites, to need dramatic confrontation. Opinions, and people, polarise quickly and dig in. It's almost as if we are frightened of the natural to and fro between opposing arguments, and must rush to a static position out on the wing of an argument, frozen in hostility.

The entire "debate" about the imminent UK EU referendum has been a disaster. Both sides have attempted to frighten us, and have attacked - sneered at - their opponents, especially if they are in the same political party.They moved to this position quickly, too. There would have been time for reasoned statements, productive argument.

To judge from street-level interviews, many of us have little idea of how the EU actually works, what its democratic processes are. We have little idea of the true social and economic effect of EU immigration. We understand little of the complexities of the relationship between EU and UK law and regulation.

Rather than try to educate us, and engage in rational argument, our political class has, in the main, rushed to their barricades and found the most emotive slogans, the most simplified messages, they could find.

They have betrayed us. 

Prime Minister Cameron launched the whole referendum idea to try to heal splits in the Conservative party, and to fend off UKIP. The Labour Party has been very slow to really speak out for Remain, I suspect because they know that a large proportion of Labour voters don't support it. 

I find value in the idea that we pay and elect our MPs to make decisions on our behalf on complex and detailed matters. Membership of the EU is a complex and detailed matter; it's about much more than a vague feeling such as "get your country back" or "it's safer to Remain." We needed skilled thinkers and speakers to explain, to educate and inform us. 

What we got instead was a threat about World War III, and a mythical £350 million per week. When the dust settles - if it ever does - I hope they feel suitably ashamed of themselves. They have put their power play way ahead of a true concern for the rest of us.

The two sides in this "debate" are freezing out the chance of a productive consideration of facts, and intelligent analyses of what leaving or staying might mean. The interchange of informed views and facts has been replaced by slogan-hurling and fear-mongering, negative campaigning rather than discussion and analysis. In effect, they have created a static balance between two extreme positions.

We the people are about to fall off the high wire. We may be about to vote Brexit with a head full of emotive rhetoric, sound bites, half-truths, the odd big lie, and a massive list of resentments which the political establishment has failed to deal with.

They have betrayed us, and they are presiding over a national disgrace, whichever way the vote goes.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

A Walk with The Naturalist

Here's The Naturalist in action, on a walk he is leading. 

 Having captivated a large (for this sort of activity) audience with the release of moths from his previous night's moth-trap harvest- so beautiful, so varied- he is here showing us an apparently insignificant black lichen thing, which looks dried up, and as dead as a dried-up lichen on a limestone wall could be. I've noticed them before and thought they were remains, an ex-plant, lifeless.

He borrows someone's water-bottle, and pours a little of the contents over the black dusty thing. It almost at once turns green, and therefore, starts to photosynthesize again. 

In motor engineering terms, that seems to me to be like a car with a flat battery and an empty tank taking in a pint of fuel and hitting 0-60 in about 1.5 seconds.

The Naturalist, with his customary light touch, says that we may quite soon find that sort of natural technology useful, as things heat up...

He takes us into a lovely little 12th century church, built of limestone blocks, and invites us to admire the flowers and plants in some recent stained glass windows, before he helps us get a truer sense of geological time. (i.e. time.) Geology as a time machine, a reversed telescope.

We feel the church is ancient, in terms of our history. The blocks of which it is built are (I think he said) about 350 milion years old, and in that period (Caboniferous) there were three separate eras during which the tiny shells and skeletons making up the limestone were laid down in their billions, and compressed into rock. The three eras were several millions of years apart. We're a blink, in that sort of scale.

"We've only been here a moment or two," he says. "Some might even say, too long." Again, all lightly done. 

And I remembered an ecologist I used to know who said simply that for all the other life forms we share the planet with, the invention of agricultues was a disaster. He wasn't anti-farming, he meant something more fundamental - hunter-gatherers don't build up surpluses, power hierarchies and huge populations. For that, you need agriculture.
Standing by a rock pool close to the high-tide mark, The Naturalist  contrasts a small brown seaweed (storm wrack? Oh dear, I've forgotten) with an equally insignificant green frondy sort of weed.

A fungus has co-evolved with the storm wrack, and they depend on each other. If the seaweed starts to grow too far out into the sea so it is wet for more than 6 hours/day, (one high tide) the fungus dies - and so does the wrack. But if there's not enough sea, the fungus would thrive so much it would overcome and kill its host. Dynamic balances are working in both organisms and through evolution - this partnership took millions of years to get to that position.

The Naturalist points down into the pool where the green weed sits, and says that it was from some such basis that green plants emerged from the sea and spread across the land.

He holds up the insignificant brown weed and invites us to consider an alternative history of the planet in which it's the brown non-synthesizing organism that triumphs on the land.

I guess everything, every single thing on the planet, would be different. No Bach, no Beatles, no - any of us.

The thing about The Naturalist is that he isn't a twitcher; he's as delighted by the house sparrows in the eaves of the church as he is by much rarer creatures. It's life in as many of its diverse forms as possible that he celebrates, as he brings the aesthetic and the scientific vision together, like the two lenses of a binocular, and helps us to identify not just with species, but with life itself around us. The energy that we are part of is what he celebrates. His vision makes meanings for our lives, and that's why I think it is a Way.