Environmentalists hating science?

With the death of James Lovelock last week at the ripe age of 103, the obits have been full of his quotable remarks. He once said, ‘Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science.’ Lovelock wrote this in 1964 in his seminal book Homage to Gaia, reflecting on his hypothesis that the earth was like a self-regulating organism. It seems unimaginable now, but this idea that greens hate science held through the 70s and into the 80s. That was when the shift started to take hold and green politics was shedding off its hippy-come-new age origins. I recall being on the crust of that wave and how it changed my life.

My early childhood in the 60s was peppered with tie-dyed t-shirts, peace signs, Joan Baez and psychedelia. Although I was only superficially aware of it, the 60s saw the birth of the ecology movement and green politics. Although Lovelock was publishing his Gaia hypothesis before this time, the science behind his ideas hadn’t yet taken hold in the popular mindset. Unlike environmentalism today, the hippies and new agers lead this eco-awareness by pointing the figure not only at governments, but also at scientists that gave us the technologies that polluted our air and water. The emphasis was on returning to the sanctity of nature. This would have a huge influence on my thinking for years to come, aided and abetted by my post-divorce mother, who was a compulsive shopper for spirituality.

My late childhood and teen years were marked by a parade of Hindu swamis, mediation groups, psychic readings, Course in Miracles meetings and creative consciousness workshops, dabbling along the way in the Kabala, Zen Buddhism, Sufism and the writings of Carlos Castaneda. All of this was laced with pop psychology, and all of this was seen as cool. The highlights were the spiritual retreats led by the spiritual group du jour out into nature – forest preserves near Chicago or a jaunt up to the Wisconsin countryside. Since my family didn’t own a car, any trip that was devoid of public transport and that meant getting away from city neighbourhoods and skyscrapers was itself an otherworldly experience. Meditation and chanting were not required.

At these retreats that, alongside tree-hugging – I mean this literally – I was exposed to a dangerous dichotomy. Spirituality seemed anti-science because it accepted phenomena (e.g., psychic healing) that could not be explained by science. Scientists, especially medical scientists, didn’t know what they were doing. Like the materialists, they were seen as corporate and were pushing us away from higher consciousness, formerly known as God. I was aware of some of the ironies even then. The new age movement was in its own way commercial and corporate and had its share of charlatans, looking to separate people from their money. The biggest irony of them all was that scientists were the ones informing us about the long-term consequences of pollution – the greenhouse effect and climate change.

I was also troubled by this polemic as a teenager as my interests in biology and astronomy was growing in parallel to my interests in literature and language. Such is the mind of a teenager, where everything and nothing seem possible. I suspected a non-spiritual career move into the sciences would have had a detrimental effect on my relationship with my mother, self-righteous and judgmental in her quest for spirit.

As my world opened through education and travel, the spiritual movement was losing its grip on me. But something in it, perhaps its comforting familiarity or the idea that these spiritual paths went against convention, still held an attraction for me. It was there like an old song from childhood, a welcomed earworm.

In the mid-80s, when I was a postgrad at Edinburgh studying linguistics, my mother would write to me hinting that I take advantage of being in Scotland to visit Findhorn, a spiritual community in Inverness. It was known at the time for its organic farming and less charitably as a place that Americas visited to become hippies. I was intrigued enough to take the four-hour train journey – but on my own terms. I attended an environmental conference held at the community. It was a heady mix, intended to bring together spirituality and environmentalism. Interestingly, despite the distinctive styles and ways of speaking, the two domains did not clash. I realised that these worlds were no longer divided as they were in my childhood. As an aside, in the years since then, Findhorn has renamed itself as an ‘ecovillage.’

While my mother thought I was at Findhorn discovering spirit, I was meeting with Green Party members and representatives from environmental NGOs. And it was there that I encountered Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, in all its beauty, its science and metaphor rolled into one.

I satisfied my mother’s spiritual needs in my letter to her with a new age spin on Gaia – that is, the Native American’s has been saying this all along – and I mentioned to her the Druids and self-proclaimed psychics and healers that I had met. I left out the geology, chemistry and biology supporting Lovelock’s work.

That was the last ‘spiritual retreat’ I went on. Gaia was the footbridge that took me into the sciences, leaving behind on the other side a dubious spiritual land. The river in between flows with psychology that I dip into and accept and the mindfulness in my daily meditation practice that can be seen as spiritual and/or physiological.

Findhorn Community

Problems and Praises for The Trauma Plot

In a recent New Yorker article, Parul Sehgal makes the case that the trauma plot can leave us with characters who are ‘flattened into a set of symptoms.’ The first example that came to my mind, and not included by Sehgal, was The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The main character without his combat encounters of deactivating bombs wasn’t much of a character. Yet, it is nevertheless a great film because for the most part it’s plot-driven, but in a good way, with precision editing giving the audience an intense visual experience.

Sehgal offers examples from television (including Clare Underwood and Ted Lasso) and modern fiction (Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) that have been reliant on the trauma narrative creating a character’s past and personality. For me, the most salient point comes from counter examples:

‘Trauma has become synonymous with backstory, but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice. Personality was not always rendered as the pencil-rubbing of personal history. Jane Austen’s characters are not pierced by sudden memories; they do not work to fill in the gaps of partial, haunting recollections.’

Sehgal is not a total polemicist, pointing out times when the traumatic backstory is only partly revealed and how it has contributed to some of our best works of fiction – Morrison’s Sula, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.

I can think of several novels that use the trauma plot to great effect without diminishing their characters. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (originally in French) have female protagonists whose traumatic pasts help to explain the defensive sharp wit and quirkiness of these rounded characters. Kazuo Ishiguro effectively deals with trauma in a few of his novels, and in An Artist of the Floating World, the denial of one character’s traumatic memories is used to symbolise the collective amnesia of post-war Japan.

Sehgal’s piece is also worth a read for what she has to say about the ubiquity of trauma in our present-day cultural scripts, offering studies and views counter to popular thought. Like Sehgal, I find it intriguing that our society seems to have a fascination with trauma. Is this part of a victim-centric wave of thought and policy (those much-debated ‘safe spaces’) or have we become more sympathetic and able to discuss traumatic experiences that our ancestors preferred to conceal?

My Year of Journaling

You might recall the start of 2021, I initiated an experiment in writing in a journal on a daily basis. No more sporadic journal writing in waves. This new regime was to give some rigour to my writing practice. I did stick with it, but a couple of times a month, I found myself too busy to write and just completing the daily exercise with a sentence or two, usually about how busy I was that day.

After 365 journal entries, I have 82 pages filled with a total of 41,225 words. That sounded impressive until I did the maths and realised I only wrote on average 110 words per day. When I was working on books, I kept my momentum by writing 5000 words per week (roughly 750 per day). I console myself with the thought that journaling wasn’t the only writing I did in 2021. There were these blogs, a couple of new essays, two articles for East Anglia Bylines and editorial work on a short story (published in September) and two academic articles (published in June and October).

What was this journal about? As a journal intime, it was about me, my feelings and my ideas for writing. Looking back at the year, the journal entries often referred to Covid and how I was feeling about it, or how the government restrictions, cancelled events and rescheduled flights interrupted my life. Interestingly, the words Covid, pandemic and test(s) didn’t even make the top 100 words on the frequency list – I uploaded the file into a concordancer as geeky linguists like me do. There were, however, a fair share of implicit references to it ‘things being as they are these days.’

Among the highest frequency words from the year of daily journaling had to do with writing itself – write, wrote, writing, blog and article all made regular appearances. Related to this was the word time – that showed up big and bold on a word cloud that I generated of the journal file (see below). These word clouds exclude pronouns and function words (such as determiners and conjunctions).

Word cloud of my 2021 journal

Back to the concordancer, which includes all words in a text, of those 41,000 plus words, the most frequent one was the pronoun I. No surprise there as journals are home of the Narrative I, which is also the Authorial I. As I was writing to me, and most certainly not to anyone else, I felt free to work through writing ideas, including the ridiculous and unpublishable – an exercise of creative muscle-stretching. Above all else, I was free to say what I thought, and the results often surprised me. These deeply private thoughts included affirmations, self-loathing, and the recording and interpreting of dreams. The act of writing such thoughts has been psychotherapeutic to say the least.

For these reasons, I’m continuing in 2022 with daily journaling, and I can highly recommend it – and not just for people who write.

Meritocracy: the self and the social

While I’ve read some fine books in 2021, my favourite this year has to be Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Central to this book is the idea that thinking we live in a meritocracy – an idea much-used by politicians – has created a false sense of deserving and has alienated the unsuccessful. Sandel points out that many who have not received the rewards of their hard work, in particular those who have been most effected by the economic crises of recent decades, blame their governments and/or immigrants, giving rise to populists’ movements in democracies such as the UK and America. Reading this book made me re-examine my own thinking on meritocracy and how it has changed over the years.

When I was a child, I believed that if I tried really hard at something I would reach my goals. Watching Jimmy Stewart films and being told by teachers and parents that anything was possible if you worked for it, I was a product of my culture. Yet, I knew even then that there were limits. I was never going to be Miss America (because I didn’t have the looks), nor was I going to be a professional baseball player (because I was a girl). By the time I was a teenager in the 70s, the women’s lib movement made me all too aware that adult life was not played on a level field and that if I succeeded at anything, I would be paid less than my male counterparts.  

While the bubble was deflating, there was still enough air in it for me to believe that hard work and ambition would have their rewards. Living in predominately white, working and lower-middle class America, believing in meritocracy was a default position. On top of that, I was caught up in the wave of aspirational coaching and new age spirituality espousing the notion that positive thinking yielded positive results. My reading list in those days featured self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay. It was all about self-improvement – it was all about me, me, me…

Although I found such thoughts empowering, there was a flipside to all of this: that failure was something I projected on to the situation. I would never blame a government or social structures – that seemed a sign of weakness, blaming others as a child would. By my mid-twenties, I easily blamed myself for the jobs I didn’t get, the publications not realized and for times of being negatively targeted by family members or colleagues. Likewise, when I did achieve and accomplish something I owed it to myself (and sometimes luck). I was being rewarded for my labours and for jumping over obstacles. It was still all about me, me, me…

Over the years, the more I talked to friends, the more books I read in politics and sociolinguistics, the more films and stage plays I saw, the more my thinking included how the power of social structures, the media, advertising and popular culture, along with money of course, dictates who achieves and who does not. Sandel’s book deconstructs our so-called meritocracy in a similar way. I was particularly pleased to see how he uses corpus linguistics to illustrate points on language used by politicians and advertisers to sell the idea that we live in or could live in a meritocracy if we vote a certain way or do certain things.

But Sandel has done more than just validate my own thinking. He has made me aware of the judgements I have made in recent years about the less educated, noting how they tended to vote more for Brexit and Trump. Sandel points out that a university degree is on the one hand not always given to the smartest or most deserving and is on the other hand an entrée to the jobs our society places more value on. He also looks at education in the climate change debate, again making me think differently. Politicians on America’s far right who are climate change deniers are just as educated as those who believe that climate change is real and human made. Both sides of the argument have used their schooling and analytical skills to justify beliefs they already had.

As 2021 winds down, my thanks to Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel

Notes on Trauma

I keep on bumping into the topic of trauma. Our society, literature and art, at least in the West, are dealing with this topic more openly and more creatively than they did in the not too distant past. So far, I just have some disconnected notes.

  • In the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a woman and her eight-year-old child escape from the brutal massacre carried out by a Mexican cartel of sixteen members of her family– that’s the opening chapter, no spoilers here. As mother and son flee this tragedy, they carry their trauma with them. The narrator, at this point focalized on the mother notes: ‘Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.’ 
  • A CfP (that’s ‘call for papers’ in academic speak) came up for an article collection on the theme of extremities, not to be confused with extremism, following on from the work of Catherine Malabou on neuro-literature and the recent wave of ‘extreme’ texts in literature. In brief neuro-literature is something of a template for literary and art criticism that is post-deconstructive (sorry Derrida) and post-sociocultural interpretations, drawing from the sciences, including neurobiology. ‘Extreme’ texts seem to have many definitions, but I divide them simply into structurally experimental and/or radical in theme. On the CfP’s list of potential topics within the idea of extremities is ‘post-trauma, witnessing, silencing and reorientation in literature.’ This makes me wonder if trauma reaches an extreme, an outer edge, of human experience.
  • Some excellent novels in recent years have dealt with the topic of rape, how it traumatises as it shames and alienates the victim and the victim’s family. A melange of emotions with an undercurrent of misogyny and patriarchy. I mentioned in a recent blog, Girl by Edna O’Brien, which is about the abducted girls in Burkina Faso. To this I add, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, which is set in the US and shows how the rape of one family member can over time change the lives of the entire family.
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk has been referred to as the ‘trauma bible.’ Van der Kolk, a trauma specialist, recounts his decades of work with trauma survivors, showing how this is not only a psychological condition and phenomenon, but also a physical one that can alter the body’s health. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. I think says something about the time we are living in.
  • A zoom talk by Women’s Human Rights Council featured Jeanne Sarson and Linda Macdonald, who were promoting their book Women Unsilenced. The book is about the male torture of women in domestic violence and in slave trafficking. The authors mentioned how they are not referring to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the usual way, for them it is PTSR. The R is for response – we respond, we naturally react to stress and trauma. To call it a ‘disorder’ further victimizes the victim. I agree with that.

It’s a humourless topic, which makes it hard to write about. It might take some journal entries and blogs to get to grips with this. But the topic is also ubiquitous, and writing about it is crucial.