Friday, 21 June 2013

Look around you. What do you see?

 Global Ecology – a New Arena of political Conflict. Editor Wolfgang Sachs. Fermwood Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1993. pp 262.

I found this book in April 2011 while browsing in the library of the Royal Dublin Society. It was in mint condition and immediately caught my interest. There was no evidence from the reader’s slip that it had been read by a member. I assumed that it was recently published and therefore would bring me up to date on the issues of ecology. I borrowed it to include in my winter holiday reading in Tenerife. Imagine my surprise when I discovered on returning home from the library that it was published in 1993 and reprinted in 2004. 

It includes 17 essays by eminent academics from universities and other institutions.  They were ecologists, economists, biologists, and anthropologists. They were drawn from all parts of the world and they included some who could speak for the third world.  The authors adopted in economic terms the North as representing the first level countries and the South as the rest of the world including the third level countries.

After my reading I came to the conclusion that no realistic steps have taken place over the last 18 years to challenge the rapid deterioration in our environment nor has there been any evidence that there is concern about the burgeoning human population which during the 18 years since first publication has increased by one and a half billion. What a contribution these newcomers have made to the so-called carbon footprint! There were no references to the need for population restraint. 

Concerns about the environment have not been changed over these 18 years. It can be simply put. We are out of balance with Nature in terms of destroying many aspects of our environment on which we depend for our survival as a species and we have done nothing about it.

 The evidence is clear – There are too many people in the world and our obsession about development in terms of energy usage, waste and globalisation are not consistent with a stable environment. We cannot survive with our dependency on and abuse of the natural features on the planet. A human population which has increased three-fold during the last 70 years to an estimated 7 billion in the autumn of 2012 is inconsistent with stable carbon emissions. Added to this are the changes which are taking place in the world to-day and which are in practice largely ignored because their insidious nature fails to impact on our minds... The drying up of rivers and lakes, the loss of wetlands, the melting of snow and ice, the increasing temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the rapid rise in carbon, the loss of rain forests, the spread of alien species and the more obvious and unprecedented loss of species, the recent unstable weather, the increasing civil strife, immigration and refugeeism, the disposal of massive amount of waste, some of which is toxic –these are only some of the changes which face us to-day and which threaten the lives and the future of our children and future generations

These distinguished authors are likely to have little influence on our current environmental problems. As academics they appear to be unconcerned about the effects of globalisation and they add little to practical solutions. Some features which may be relevant to a stable and enduring world are reviewed but there is a lack of realism in encouraging the third world to reach our own level of development, when it is clear that we in the first world should strive to reduce our waste and our contributions to climatic warming to that of the third world. And it is clear that the first world is seriously abusing the welfare of the third world by depriving the latter of much of their natural wealth in terms of forestry, mineral wealth, fishing and other non-renewable resources. Poverty in the South must be eliminated, an aspiration which has so far failed despite the billions which have already been donated in recent years to the central African countries where the massive increase in population is outstripping the benefits of foreign help. 

The authors fail to underline the crucial fact that we are destroying the very fabric of our environment, a fabric which is worldwide in nature and which we and all other species are depending on for our very existence. They emphasise the importance of maintaining our standard of living worldwide. Energy must be reduced but there is no reference to the burgeoning car industry, to unnecessary flying, to the worst features of globalisation; and virtually no reference to the burgeoning increase of population; and no reference to the need to return to a more community form of living. 

When I was a teenager in the mid- and late 1930s, we were an extended family living in a suburban community and close to our cousins, neighbours and friends. We had no car, but used our legs, the bicycle and public transport. We rarely travelled further than the city and then only to our cousins in the country. If we travelled abroad it was to stay with foreign families as part of our education as we reached adulthood, and in my case to complete my medical education in London. My parents took two weeks’ holiday a year to stay with friends or in provincial hotels. We were reasonably housed but could have been better clothed to avoid the prevailing chilblains and the paucity of artificial heating.

Me, third from the right
We were adequately fed although our tastes were simple and eating habits were more disciplined then. The obesity syndrome was to await many more years. We had the grounds to grow some of our own food and fruit, and to provide eggs for the family and a few other households in the area. We had a large galvanised water butt for use in the garden and greenhouse. Washing dried on the line outside or, when it rained, in the kitchen. Our garden was teeming with insects, bees and butterflies in the summer and with birds at all seasons. We had access to the local library, saw little crime and were at least as happy as an equivalent family today and probably more secure.

As children we caused no damage to the environment. Indoor games and self-entertainment, added to the girls’ activities in designing, creating and repairing clothes, kept us busy, and outdoor games and hobbies were enjoyed and sometimes shared with neighbours and cousins. The emphasis was still on non-elitist sport and regular physical activity. Scouting for the boys was invaluable in terms of occupation, education and training. There was no accumulation of toys and plastic in the house – it was long before the plastic era and the heavy pressure on parents and friends to provide the huge variety of plastic toys so attractive to the young today.

Above all, when I was young there was little waste and no evidence of the current pollution of the environment or of unwelcome incinerators. Darkness still prevailed in most places at night. The only possible damage to the environment we might have wrought was the high birth rate, the gradual elimination of the contagious epidemic diseases which had so drastically controlled population in the past and the huge decline in infant mortality. These factors were to contribute to the emerging rapid increase in world population.

Why do we not return to such community existence and thus eliminate the worst elements of globalisation that must inevitably lead to disaster for the world and for humanity? Look at the advantages which we have over and above my family of seventy-five years ago. The dramatic progress of communication by internet, radio and television; the technical advances in food production and product manufacture; the advances in clothing and insulation of houses and offices, the remarkable advances in bike technology and equipment and in public transportation; the great improvement in general health thanks to prevention, public education and advances in medicine; the great advances in education for the masses and, finally, the inspirational resources of the human mind; and all this without causing damage to the good earth or its inhabitants.

We will continue to need energy to provide essential services, but we surely could have access to and utilise solar power more widely and, perhaps to a lesser degree, wind and water energy and energy from the earth’s core. A worldwide change from a meat to a vegetable agricultural economy would provide enough food to cater for an inflated human population.

One author is optimistic about the role of NGOs such as Greenpeace, WorldWatch and many other local and international organisations. They have certainly been active but their successes have been hardly such as to make a significant change in our efforts to protect the world. Whatever success they may have has done little to curb the power of the globalisation industries.  There is little reference to the failure of our national and international politicians and none to the baleful influence of the armament, oil, monoculture food industries and the international media which are controlled by the global business interests.

Politicians are urged to keep human extraction/emission in balance with the regenerative capacity of nature, but how can we influence politicians who are under the spell of world industry and are elected by people who are committed to an acquisitive and wasteful lifestyle?

This book is not without its obvious merits. Much of its academic approach cannot be ignored even as late as 18 years after its publication.

It is clear that the ecological problems remain implacably with us. The failures of Copenhagen and Cancún were simply a continuation of many previous failures by our politicians and ecologists. Most countries do not see the issues as very relevant to their concerns. Environment was seen by our leading politicians as antithetical to development. Although several civic groups and NGOs articulate alternate views, they are invariably treated by governments with indifference and are excluded from their councils. There continues to be an enduring pessimism about the potential of North/South dialogue on issues of global impact. Like First level countries, most of the South’s governments pursue narrowly parochial agendas – the most obvious being to seek financial gains for themselves, rather than trying to influence real environmental challenges

Nemesis is the Greek conception of retribution as when we challenge Nature, when we dominate and destroy other creatures and when we violate the natural order through water and air pollution, tree destruction and other aspects of our environment. Nemesis can be attributed to hubris, to the price we pay for our rejection of Gaia, the natural world on which we are totally dependent for our wellbeing and survival. It is the assumption that we can dominate nature and that nature exists solely for our own wellbeing in terms of possessions and personal comfort and satisfaction. Our behaviour can be justified as a trade-off for the gradual destruction of the natural order.

I don’t believe we have any idea of the consequences of the capitalistic and globalised order of our selfish world. I fear for our grandchildren, our birds, our bees and many other species ordained by nature. We are in need of a world leader and a world movement to adjust our relationship with Nature if we are to survive the threat to humanity and the earth we live in. 

22nd April 2011.

Postscript 19/6/2013:

Global Ecology was written in 1992. It was largely related to the politics of the environment. Little or nothing has changed since then. I sent the review to my editor, Lisa Mulcahy, on this date for early publication in my blog. This was the same day that the Irish Times headline read

G8 leaders call for flexibility in fiscal policy to help boost global economy

These were the leaders of the eight most powerful nations in the world meeting in the North of Ireland the day before. These are the people who will determine the future of humanity and our natural world. So what are we to expect from such leaders?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Accept your lot and carry on.

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Penguin Classics 1964. pp 188

This is an extension of a letter I sent in 2010 to a neighbour after an evening with her. It was not included with my list of reviews. On finding a copy in the book a few days ago I thought it worth including some further comments to the letter and adding the text to my list of reviews.

It was nice to meet you on Wednesday last. I always enjoy our discussions. We talked of Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics; they were an elitist group founded in Crete about 300BC and later spread to Rome before the time of Christ. They were founded by Zeno, a native of Cyprus, and the name was based on the word Zena, the colonnade in Athens where he was accustomed to address and discourse with his listeners

The Stoics followed a secular culture or philosophy rather than a religion, where their paramount belief was in virtue and its immanence. They eschewed any belief outside the secular, such as an afterlife and the existence of a god as conceived by Christians and other religious groups.   Although it might be described as a ‘’secular religion’’ it is stated in the Introductrion that God is immanent but he has no separate existence outside reality. I suppose that their conception of god was the nature of the world which is and always will be beyond our understanding

Most of our Christian commitments to virtue and love for our neighbours (however horrible they are and however high is the fence between us!) may have been derived from the Stoics. The doctrine of universal brotherhood is inherent in their philosophy. I believe that the Stoics had a profound influence on the evolution of Christian morality and this view is supported by the author in the Introduction to the Penguin edition. 

Marcus Aurelius
In the introduction it is stated that the Aurelian principles coloured the ideas of the educated classes, not only in Roman times but with varying degrees during the last two millennia.  It was a code which was manly, rational and temperate, and implied self discipline and unflinching fortitude. Marcus Aurelius had a particular influence on Victorian England. Many households there had copies of his writings edited by many different authors

You should read the introduction in the Penguin Classic edition. He was Emperor when he is believed to have recorded these thoughts as he was encamped in the German marshes while he was leading the Legions against the Huns. On reading his many precepts, adages and invocations, he strikes one at first as being complacent, smug and sententious, but as you absorb the spirit of his commitment to virtue, there is a strong sense of logic and spirituality to be found in those who, like me, are agnostics. I have stated in my autobiography that having discarded the Roman Catholic Church and the other Christian faiths as I became absorbed in the more secular writings of the Stoics, I found a new spirituality and a new comfort in the acceptance of my role as a transient entity in an unexplained universe. I prefer the joys and sorrows of life and its inevitable end to the meaningless immortality of the Gods. At least I am comforted by the genes I have left behind.

Whatever you find in the Stoics, as recorded by Aurelius, and however smug he appears to be, you will be struck by the logic of virtue and you will believe that being virtuous will make you a happier person. Under the Stoic interpretation of ethics, it is believed that the chief goal of Man is the achievement of happiness and happiness depends exclusively on virtue. Pleasure by itself is not good nor pain bad. They become so only when we judge them to be so. We must accept with resignation whatever should befall us. 

In our daily lives we see so many examples of the satisfaction people may have in making sacrifices on behalf of others. To-day’s globalisation and the widespread urge for more and more acquisitions do not make us happier people and it is clear that if we are to reverse the world’s descent to disaster, we must find a massive return to virtue and to self-sacrifice. Virtue may be admirable and often part of human behaviour, but it is at all times vulnerable to human failings such as the abuses inherent in power, privilege and prejudice.

I have been greatly committed to the Stoic philosophy although my life has not been particularly virtuous. However, I was influenced by Marcus Aurelius and particularly in one respect. If you turn to book six of the Penguin book, page 97, para 30, you will discover his conception of what a man should be in a virtuous world.  I believe that, in defining this paragon, his aim as Emperor of the Romans was to live up to his precepts. It seems to me that no community could possibly live up to the standards he sets (except perhaps the Cathars of Languedoc of the 13th century) but it occurred to me that there were a few of his lines which struck a chord in relation to my father. He was no paragon but I found among the Emperor’s  recommendations some aspects touching my father which  caused me in my late forties to enquire more about dad’s  life and times, and to join my siblings to encourage Maryann Valiulis to write his first biography. It was later to lead to my further writings about him and his family. I hope that in my own two biographies of my father I have conveyed some of his virtues as a soldier and politician which would be approved of by his distinguished Roman predecessor.
Marcus Aurelius

I have much pleasure in sending you the Penguin Classic edition of the Meditations. I hope you enjoy it. It is for dipping, a bedside book but not to be read throughout the night.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Like the full stop, the best is kept till last.

This is a review of  Eats, Shoots and Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, Profile Books, London, 2003.

I read this amusing, informative and educational book dealing with all aspects of punctuation at the beginning of August 2004. It was borrowed from Dermot Hourihane. It deals with all aspects of punctuation including stops, commas, colons, semi-colons, apostrophes, question marks, exclamation marks, ellipses, hyphens and the dash. The areas which concern the author most are the apostrophes, the comma, and the colon and semi-colon (what about the last comma here?). Clearly many of the differences of opinion about the usage of punctuation exist because these differences do not necessarily interfere with the readability or the meaning of the written word. It is therefore clear that the aficionados of style and syntax should not become too belligerent about differences of emphasis and of opinion. However, there are many interesting points raised by Ms Truss and some are important from the point of view of clarity. Some of these points do not arise very often and certainly do not concern the contemporary user of the internet, of texting and mobile phones where no rules of syntax or punctuation appear to exist. I shall go through the book seriatim and I shall deal with the points which interest me most.

On page 30 she first mentions the Oxford comma. I had always been concerned about this use of the comma which is widely popular in the United States but much less so in Europe. The only justification for the Oxford comma is when the word and precedes the penultimate word: I went to the chemist, Marks and Spencers, and NatWest. But: I went to the chemist, NatWest and the post office.

Her chapter dealing with the comma underlines some of the misuses of this punctuation mark. She uses a comma before a quotation but I wonder if this is necessary. I have never done so; I used go straight on to the quotation without any indication, apart from the inverted commas. In my view it is an unnecessary addition to the sentence where the quotation mark (or the italics as I tend to use for short quotations) is sufficient to indicate the change in content. The absence of a comma in no way alters the readability of the sentence. Nowadays I use neither italics nor inverted commas for quotes but I simply invert the quotation in a new paragraph unless it is very short. In such an event I include the quotation in the full sentence and mark it in italics. Is this acceptable or should italics be reserved for titles?

She does not refer to the use of the Oxford comma to provide a little emphasis, almost as an afterthought, as when one substitutes the comma by a conjunction before the second of the three nouns, as in the quote from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey poem Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods, and mountains; ---. (By the way, this wonderful poem of Wordsworth’s should be the national anthem of all environmentalists.)  Should the hyphens at the end of the line preceding the brackets have a full stop and should I have used a stop within the brackets? I think the first full stop should not be necessary as it is clear that the sentence was intended to continue but the second deserves a full stop as it is a completer sentence.

Clearly the apostrophe is the punctuation mark which causes the most trouble. It is used in eight different situations. Its commonest misusage is when it is used instead of the plural as in 1980's instead of 1980s. This is a misusage which is extremely common among secretaries and which I frequently need to correct. The author wonders if the apostrophe is likely to endure and feels pessimistic about its misuse in so many situations. She even suggests that it may be on its last legs and now urgently needs help from those who really care. An interesting and common misuse is in the word it’s in its possessive form instead of its true contractive form. I have carelessly made this mistake myself in the distant past but never, yes, never again.

One of the reasons she feels pessimistic about the apostrophe is because few people appear to use it properly and therefore it may outlast its usefulness. However, there are situations where the very meaning of a sentence may be altered because of a missing or redundant apostrophe. She mentions that in possessive plural words ending in s the apostrophe takes its place before the added s while in plural words which do not end in s, such as children, the apostrophe is placed after the s. She asks the reader how much more abuse must the apostrophe endure. The apostrophe must be the least understood of the punctuation marks. It is of course useful in indicating the plural of single letters – F’s – and of the plurals of words – Do’s and Don’t’s.. My own modest opinion is that the apostrophe provides too many essential functions which cannot otherwise be easily supplanted and that it must remain firmly in our language if it is to maintain its dominance as the most powerful language of our time.

In longer sentences finishing with a quotation I am concerned whether the period comes before or after the terminal quotation mark. The English tend to place the dot after the quotation mark while the Americans tend to have it before the mark. She says the American system doesn’t make sense and I think she clarifies the position when she states that, when the punctuation relates to the quoted words only, the stop goes inside the inverted commas; when it relates to a sentence ending in a quote, the mark is placed after the quotation mark. This seems to be a logical solution. I would favour consigning the quotation mark to the limbo of words and punctuations and to use italics or add a new inverted paragraph if the quote is of any great length.

She discusses in some detail the uses and abuses of the colon and the semi-colon. In my writing I seldom use the semi-colon (although in this review I have already used it, perhaps in response to Ms. Truss’s encouragement!) and only then when the second sentence is a close continuum of the first. She uses the semi-colon much more liberally when she is writing generally around a subject. I find the repeated semi-colon to be rather indigestible and I feel better served by a comma or full stop, depending how close the relationship is between the subject matter of the contiguous sentences. Although she uses the semi-colon widely in the text of the book, she states that it faces a losing battle, which does not surprise me. Truss states how much notice should we take of those pompous sillies who denounce the semi-colon?   Despite her distain of such critics, it is clear from her text that many writers, editors and journalists are dismissive of the frequent use of the semi-colon nor do I disagree with this trend.

The colon is obviously useful when writing titles or to indicate sequences, although the dash is better in my view and gives a better flow to the text. Many of her examples of the use of the colon are from works of fiction, and it is unlikely that a writer of non-fiction will frequently need to use colons and semi-colons, whatever about apostrophes. She uses a colon as follows: this much is clear, Watson: it was the baying of an enormous hound and I loved Opal Fruits as a child: no one else did. This use of the colon is more effective and dramatic than I loved Opal Fruits as a child but no one else did. She finishes by quoting a classic use of the colon is as a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements. An example: Man proposes: God disposes – better than a simple comma which lacks the implied emphasis or Man proposes and God disposes; or Man proposes. God disposes. The colon may be more dramatic than the use of a dash. The colon is also used following the names of actors or characters. But there are almost always alternatives to the colon and it is likely that one could write and write well without ever using either the colon or semi-colon. Nevertheless, her 38-page chapter on the subject ‘Airs and Graces’ is worth reading even if one disagrees with the author’s enthusiasm for these punctuation marks

She provides information about brackets. The common round brackets () are described as brackets in England but as parenthesis in America. The square brackets [] are used in particular situations such as [sic] and sometimes in the use of ellipses to indicate missing words or to trail off in an intriguing manner. Brace brackets {} appear to be used mainly in mathematics and she states that angle brackets < > are used in palaeography, linguistics and other technical areas. She thinks that brackets lift up a section of a sentence, holding it a foot or two above the rest, ----. Bracketed sentences should not be too long; otherwise they lead to dissipation of the reader’s understanding; nor should they be used too often. Neither should italics.

She deals with the hyphen on page 168 and describes its many uses, some of which are contentious or a matter of fashion. She confirms that it cannot be eliminated, despite the forebodings of some, and she refers to the example of the pickled herring merchant and the pickled-herring merchant. Another example is extra-marital sex and extra marital sex. The popular use of the hyphen is in danger because of the internet and such writings as those of Joyce, and such un-hyphenated compounds as snotgreen and scrotumtightening, which are becoming a routine part of language (If not in practice!). Personally, while I have sometimes found the latter conjunction of two words, I have never found a use for them. and I cannot be blamed for joining the unruly mob of latter day linguists. Many phrases require a hyphen to avoid ambiguity, including words such as co-respondent, re-formed and re-marked. I may be at fault at times when I write: he was a two or three-year (or two-or three-year) old boy with one or more hyphens. However, written without any hyphen, the meaning would probably be clear to most, except perhaps to the two or three year old. Perhaps a good alternative would be a two or three-year old.

The question mark is not used with rhetorical or indirect questions such as can you let us have your old clothing. There is some doubt about its use with titles and notices.

This book is one of many written about good English, syntax and punctuation, and is both interesting and instructive to non-professional writers like myself who responded to Churchill’s advice you should always be writing a book; it gives you something to do during your spare time. Truss refers to George Bernard Shaw and his iconoclastic ideas of the use of the English language. I imagine that a discussion between Ms. Truss and GBS would soon become heated on the subject of punctuation, although I guess Shaw would be too much of a gentleman to argue with a woman. In his own biography it was stated that he was always courteous to the gentler sex. His views of language confirm that the rules enunciated by Ms. Truss and other experts need not be applied too rigidly unless they are essential for clarity...

I have several books in my library on the subject of English. These have accumulated over the years. One is the Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers and revised by Sir Bruce Fraser. First published in 1948, my copy is a Pelican paperback, which was published in 1974. In the introduction, the author states Write so as to be clear with a minimum of stops, and use stops for clarity. Other books which I read with great interest over the years included classics by Fowler, Partridge, Gowers, Brewer and Rodale, and the three paperbacks, ‘Good English’, ‘Better English’ and ‘Best English’ published many years ago by PAN and now missing from my library. They made fascination reading.

I have a nostalgia for the life of a Cambridge or Oxford don, with rooms in College, attended by a loyal and ancient factotum, with my pipes and antique leather chair, unencumbered by wife or child, with the stimulus of young men about me and a regular visit from my lover, and my days otherwise spent poring over books about language and above all about the greatest language known to Man, English.