Ode to Ecology

It’s been over three years since I wrote my first post here. This column started as a creative outlet for my writer’s soul, as I tackled the confines of academic science writing.

I also saw it as a way to champion my new career. When I wrote my first post, I had encountered many people, including family and friends, who were genuinely puzzled over what I actually ‘do’.

I remember my stint in the unemployment queue during the fiscal fiasco. “I’m an ecologist”, I said to the government careers adviser.

She looked at me blankly and replied “Sorry, a what? How do you spell that?” Continue reading

Zen and the Art of Progress Trapping

I watched a very thought-provoking film the other night called Surviving Progress – it is loosely based on a book called A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. I recommend it to absolutely every person, particularly those under the age of 25. The film lays a very convincing case for the idea of ‘progress traps’. To quote from the film’s website, progress traps are “alluring technologies [that] serve immediate needs, but ransom the future”.

An example is given of a Neanderthal man who learns to hunt and kill a mammoth. Then he works out that with 2 or 3 mates, they can hunt 2 or 3 mammoths at once, which equals more food. Then, as human populations increase, they realise that a whole bunch of them can hunt a whole herd of mammoths and drive them over a cliff, killing them all at once…and that’s the progress trap. Continue reading

Modern Luxury, a new oxymoron

I was reading an article (Everything Old is Green Again) in Conservation Magazine the other day which confirmed something I have suspected for quite a while – older buildings are often more energy-efficient than any built today.

The story uses the example of the Monadnock Building in Chicago, once the largest office building in the world. Completed in 1893, Monadnock had very thick brick walls (around 2m wide) to keep heat in during winter and out during summer, transoms and bay windows to allow natural light in, and windows were usually positioned to allow cross-breezes.

The Monadnock Building in Chicago - energy-efficient before it was on trend. (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

These features were very common to most commercial buildings of that period, before we decided that quicker, cheaper construction meant more cash to go around the table. Continue reading

The Hare and the Tortoise

Æsop’s fable of the reckless, over-confident hare and the far-sighted tortoise is one of my favourites. For those of you who can’t remember it, the moral is that although the hare got going fast and almost reached the destination first, his cockiness got the better of him. As the hare took a pre-finish line nap, thinking he had the result in the bag, the tenacious tortoise, moving more slowly and methodically, plodded straight past him and over the finish line…proving that slow and steady wins the race.

These days we seem to have evolved into Hares. Always rushing around, jumping off the springboards of our rash desires without checking what we’re diving into, or what the consequences will be. What with work, meetings, worry, offspring-advancement activities and snatched coffee dates with our friends, we’re constantly on the move and racing against time…which incidentally seems to have sped up. But that’s another story. Continue reading

The Origin of a Species

It’s easy for some to think that we’ve stopped evolving as a species, at least for the time being. As far as we can tell, Homo sapiens has looked, and mostly behaved, fairly similar since it developed speech and communal living, albeit with small changes in language, customs, clothing, transport and house structures. But evolution of any system never really stops, and sometimes can even work in reverse (e.g. Darwin’s finches and Seattle’s sticklebacks).

After all, as Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, “Under domestication we see much variability… [which] is governed by many complex laws, – by correlation of growth, by use and disuse, and by the direct action of the physical conditions of life.” A species can only keep reproducing carbon copies of itself for multiple generations “as long as the conditions of life remain the same”.

And the conditions of human life have changed.

But when I was young, we ate meat!

Continue reading

A Ghost of an Idea

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

– William Morris

There is so much STUFF in the world.  Once upon a time newspapers were printed once a week.  Magazines (or periodicals) were mostly available through the post by subscription, or a small amount of copies were sold at city newsstands. Clothes and shoes were made on demand, only when they were needed.  Milk was delivered only to customers that ordered it.  Gift-giving occasions (Christmas, birthdays, Mothers Day, Easter etc.) were more tradition and family-based than present-based, and one or two thoughtful, quality items were considered more worthy of a ‘gift’ than multiple, cheap and useless items. Continue reading

The Modern Nomad

Once upon a time, humans were nomadic.  Our belongings were limited to the skin wrapped around our hips, a weapon or tool or two, and maybe some animals, rugs or random pots thrown in too.  We roamed free through the forests and across the plains.  We didn’t have to be home by nightfall, we just slept under the stars, wherever we were.

Then we got sick of roaming and settled down, building walls around us to shut out the night…or shut ourselves in.  We began to collect things—furniture, clothes, books, pianos, fine china dishes, cushions and crystal glasses.  A home quickly changed from a safe place to pass the night and spend time with your family to a showroom of your life, full of advertisements of your wealth, status and style.  Furniture was once built to last generations, fine china dishes were family heirlooms and clothes came in two sets—Good and Everyday. Continue reading