Category: Book Notes

Best Books of 2021

Over the course of 2021 I read approximately 100 books, mostly physcial books, though some through audible and some electronic. These are books that I read in 2021; many were published before 2021. When I sat down to write this post I was aiming for 10, but in the end I have ended up with seven.

Best Political Memoir / Politics Book: Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street by Gavin Barwell

This memoir from Gavin Barwell details his time as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff. It is not writtien in a traditonal diary format but instead grouped around key areas and events over his time in office. The book explains how the role of chief of staff works in a UK context and provides an insight into some of the behind the scenes elements of politics.

Best Autobiographical Work: A Walk from the Wild Edge by Jake Tyler

This is a book that chart’s Jake’s walk around the coast of Britain. However it is less a travelogue than a personal story of Jake’s mental health, begining with a breakdown that led him to quit his job and his walk around Britain undertaken as part of his personal recover. Jake is a local writer who grew up in Maldon, Essex and this was an interesting read.

Best Non-Fiction: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Gates book presents a clear summary of what needs to be done to address the climate crisis. Gates takes a technical approach looking at the current levels of emissions (51 billion tonnes) and how they break down and need to be reduced.

Best Fiction: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is an ‘alternative history’ work of fiction that charts the life of Hillary Rodham if she had not married Bill Clinton. This was a great read but it scored mixed reviews in our book club. I think that to get the best out of this book you need to have a good working knowledge of US politics as it helps you to understand some of the choices Sittenfeld has made.

Best Book to Improve Subject Knowledge: Plate Tectonics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Molnar

This is one of a number of books from the ‘A Very Short Introduction ‘ series that I own. This book is really useful for the A Level geography syllabus as it takes a slightly deeper look at the mechanics and impacts of plate tectonics than covered in A Level textbooks but still entirely accessible for both students and teachers.

Best Leadership/Management Book: Radical Candor by Kim Scott

This book is the best leadership book I have read in a long while. This text goes through how to be honest at work while still remaining humane. Scott takes us through ways that this can be done and also explains that candor is needed to be kind in the long run.

Book to Promote Better Reading: This is the Canon: Decolongize your bookshelf in 50 books by Anim-Addo, Osborne and Sesay

This is a book that I have started but not finished; as I originally saw the book in the libary and flicked through it but then purchased a copy. My aim will be to read the 50 books that it profiles – at a rate of one a month over the next four years.

The full list of books that I have read in 2021 can be found on Goodreads here.

Rebirding – Benedict Macdonald

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This is a second book that I read before the prize longlist was announced. As a geography teacher I found this really interesting and also provided lots of extra knowledge for someone who is always interested in the birds in his garden, but does not really have the patience for birdwatching.

Please see below my notes from the book:

Hedgerows are thought of as a traditional aspect of the English landscape, however they were introduced from about 1790. “We now mourn the loss of hedgerows and their wildlife, yet these are a recent invention in the great scheme of things. This life-support system briefly expanded the scrubland empire of birds, whose declines have come back to haunt us as, two hundred years later, over half of our hedgerows have been removed once more.

Crop rotation was invented 8,000 years ago in the Middle East, long before soil chemistry was understood. Until 1930s, rotation was trundling along and its premise was simple. Your soil can only provide so much. Growing the same crop in the same place depletes the soil’s nutrients. A side effect of crop rotation was promoting bird diversity. Both benefited from a range of food and nest sites, because whilst one field was doing on one-thing, another was doing something else. This increased the variety of the menu on offer across the year, and promoted the small-scale mosaic of habitats in which many of our scrubland birds evolved in the first place.

On average, Britain has lost 50% of its hedgerows since the way, and many arable counties, especially in eastern England, a great deal more. In the absence of our wooded grasslands, hedgerows kept our remaining trees connected and alive. A hedgerow made of bushes is a habitat. A hedgerow with trees is a highway. From a bird’s perspective, an ancient hedgerow is the continuation of a wood. Ancient hedgerows with oaks don’t just increase feeding and nesting sites. They connect woodlands to one another, allowing birds to move across landscapes. If you rip wooded hedgerows from a landscape, you’re destroying not just homes – but highways. Even in a countryside devoid of large woodlands, small copses, connected by hedgerows, can function as big woods. Many birds, including marsh tis, do not seem to notice that their hazel woodland has become synthetic, long and thin. Nor do Britain’s dormice.

Since 1970, corn buntings have declined by 90%. Since the 1930s, second to house sparrows, we’ve lost more biomass of tree sparrows than any living bird: 97% have vanished since 1970 alone, and for every tree sparrow we see today there were 30 in the early 1970s. These birds’ dual diet, of summer invertebrates and winter seeds, has been cleansed from modern farmland all at once. Since 1973, we’ve lost 93% of our grey partridges. Herbicides, have starved their chicks, which now have just a 30% chance of survival.

It is the habitat assessments written by cuckoos and curlews that matter – not those committed to thousands of sheets of paper each year. The birds are telling us, by their absence, as much as their presence, quite what a waste land we have created in Britain – even if the wider aspect of trees and fields appears the same. Britain’s birds are pointing us to trophic collapse. We need to listen , and learn.

English oaks have more associated insects than any other tree. Southwood’s study found 284 invertebrates associated primarily with oak. Around 380 of Britain’s 900 moths are wood-dependent, with 220 alone supported by deciduous oak. Open grown oak has six times the woodland cover of a forest tree. 200 year oaks are quite a sight, they have nothing on 500 year oaks.

Meta-populations or meta-communities can provide mechanisms for survival. Isolation by contrast, breeds extinction. It is fundamentally unnatural for that single pair of house martins in your village to be defying the community based rules by which their species evolved. Only birds in robust populations stand the test of time. For a shrike population to have a 95% chance of surviving for 50 years, in favourable conditions, you’d need 80-90 pairs in that population. Such a population provides viability, where insurance is provided against predation, bad summers, inbreeding and other mechanisms that drive decline.

As a rule, we always underestimate the scale and connection that birds need, perhaps because these connections have been lacking from our landscapes for so long. We forget that aggregation is important to a whole range of species. Birds exercise better defence against predators in large populations, alerting one another to danger.

With its large sympathetic landscapes now reduced to the size of postage stamps, Britain has become an island of islands. Only the largest of these are proving big enough to sustain populations of birds. If food is why individual pairs of birds are failing to survive, and bad stewardship is preventing the return of our wildlife, isolation is why birds are vanishing from the map – as populations in habitat-islands collapse all at once.

No impulse exists in resident birds to cross hostile habitats and find a better home. A capercaillie, will not go blustering through the towns of Scotland in search of a new forest. Once confined and isolated, the forest where it was born becomes the limit of its knowledge. Such birds can only be restored through reconnecting habitat, or reintroducing birds from scratch. This is why golden eagles will mostly dance over Wales in any of our lifetimes – until conservationists put them back in.

There is more landscape dynamism, rewilding and birdlife in Berlin than in most counties of southern England. Berlin has eagles and ospreys, shrikes and wrynecks. Birds that have vanished from Britain are thriving here. Many animals, such as wild boars, beavers and goshawks, live right within the city. At least 170 breeding species of bird, more than in most British counties or any British nature reserve, thrive around Berlin.

British gardens, as a collective, have the potential to form a network of nature reserves unparalleled in Europe. Our gardens account for 18% of land use in urban areas. Around 22 million people – and 87% of all homes – have access to a garden. Birds in gardens are often fed, whereas those in the countryside often starve. Higher temperatures in our towns and cities increase winter survival. Gardens are to twenty-first-century Britain what the hay meadow was to the eighteenth century – a massive life-support system, tipping the odds greatly in the favour of some birds.

Britain’s squared hedges, the sprayed bases of trees, the lifeless lanws, in aggregate wipe out wildlife on a massive scale. Garden warblers were first noticed in the bushy maze of our village gardens. How many villages are bushy enough to hold them now?

Dancing with Bees – Brigit Strawbridge Howard

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This book although nominated for the 2020 Wainwright prize was actually one that I read before the longlist was announced. I found it really thought provoking, and read it initially because of the RGS Nature Writing Bookclub. This book spiked an interest in Bees and has made me more attentive when in our garden, and I have now joined the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Below are the Notes that I made while Reading It

Planet Earth is home to some 352,000 described species of flowering plants. These are, in turn, pollinated by at least 350,000 described, and many additional undescribed species of pollinating animals. Plants and their animal pollinators have been evolving together for millions of years, and whilst some flowers have become specialists and adapted to coexist with specific animals, most are generalists and are visited by many different species. Birds and bats pollinate flowers, as do rodents, marsupials, and lizards. But the majority of pollinating animals are insects: wasps, hover-flies, and other flies, butterflies, moths, ants, flower beetles, and of course bees.

In 2017 migratory beekeepers shipped around 1.7 million honeybee colonies to and around California, where they pollinated 1.3 million aches of almond trees. These bees were in addition to the 500,000 colonies that were already resident in the almond valleys. The almond crop alone relies on trucking some 88 billion bees from their wintering homes, which, in some cases, are up to one thousand males away. Back and forth go the hives on flatbed trucks, east and west, with stops to pollinate summer crops in the Midwest, before they get a rest over the winter before they start the whole circuit again. Some of these hives will travel ten thousand miles of roads each year as the bees pollinate crops including apples, clover, canola, alfalfa, sunflowers, and blueberries.

The majority of bees have no social traits whatsoever and are called solitary. Though solitary bees might live alongside each other, they usually have their own individual nests or nest entrances, and do not interact with others of their kind (unless they are mating).

Bees have been quietly disappearing, or declining in range and numbers. There are currently nineteen native bee species on the United Kingdom Biodiversity action Plan list, which is made up of priority species that have been identified as being the most threatened and therefore requiring conservation action. Of these nineteen species, six are bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees. European honey bees are not, and never have been on the UK list.

Bringing hundreds of thousands more honeybees into an area where they might already be outcompeting native wild bees for foraging resources makes no sense whatsoever – unless, of course, you simultaneously plant fields full of flowering plants for the honeybees to forage upon, which in most cases is not what happens.Keeping bees might well help increase crop pollination, but the fact is that you are no more likely to save bees by becoming a beekeeper than you are going to save ‘birds’ by keeping chickens.

It is worth mentioning that not all the insects you see on flowers are actually pollinating those plants. I have discovered over the last few years that the terminology you use is extremely important when talking about bees and pollination. The term pollinator refers to creatures that actually pollinate the plants they visit, whilst all the others are called visitors .A bee or butterfly on a flower is not necessarily pollinating it. It might simply be supping nectar from the flower, without making contact with the plant’s reproductive parts or getting pollen on itself to be transferred to another plant.

Wherever there is minimal or zero intervention and management; where nature has the freedom to do what nature chooses, rather than what we think nature should do; when we stop the clock, take a back seat, and become observers rather than masers; there, unexpected and magical things begin to happen.

Non self-respecting vegetable plot should be without at least a small patch of comfrey,. As a soil enricher comfrey provides significantly higher quantities of potassium, potash, and nitrogen than other organic fertilisers, even out performing most manures, composts and liquid feeds for the concentration of nutrients. It provides pollen and nectar for numerous species of bumblebees and other insects. According to a survey conducted by the AgriLand project, comfrey is one of the top ten plant species for nectar when measured in micrograms of sugar produced per flower per day.

The number of insects in the country has dramatically decreased; this is evidenced by the reduction of insects found on car windnscreens. There also used to be huge flocks of birds following ploughs – ehse were eating worms and other organisms exposed by the plough. There are fewer birds following the tractors in part because there is less life in the soil.

The term ‘cuckoo bee’ applies to a number of different bees that, like their namesake bird, lay their eggs in the nests of other bees. All are brood parasites, or cleptoparasites. And just as bumblebee and solitary bee life cycles differ, so do the life cycles of their respective cuckoos. Cuckoo bees account for around 80 of the 2780 or so solitary bee species in Britain and Ireland. Typically, each one is associated with more than one host bee species. Not all bees need to worry about cuckoos. In Britain there are no known cuckoos for Yellow Loostrife bees, for instance. Conversely, very few of our ground-nesting Andnrena species get away without being cuckoo’d. The cuckoo of ground nesting mining bees are mostly of the sort known as cuckoos.

It is vital that bumblebees have suitable flowers to forage on throughout their lifecycles, but habitat are now sadly few and far between . We have lost around 98 percent of our wild flower-rich grasslands int he UnitedKingdom since the end of the Second World War, and alongside these losses we have seen declines in not only Great Yellow bumblebees and other wild flower-loving species of bees and butterflies but also ground-nesting birds such as lapwing, skylark, curlew and con-rake all of which like to nest in wild flower meadow and grasslands.

To address climate change and improve air quality, we urgently need a balance of tree species, which will mean planting more fast-growing and slow-growing trees whilst at the same time protecting the planet’s existing mature trees and forests. The older a tree or woodland, the more biodiversity it supports. This is especially true during a tree’s twilight years, when the amount of invertebrates and beneficial fungi living on and around the wood increases exponentially.

An increasing number of pollinator species are beginning to emerge earlier or later than they used to; birds are pairing off and starting to nest when they shouldn’t; and plants that used to flower in February are now flowering in November, or vice versa.

The lack of available pollen and nectar causes more problems for some species than others’ honeybees, for instance, are able to feed on the honey and pollen stores they have built up in their hives for as long as these provisions last, and bumblebee colonies can survive for up to a few weeks on the nectar they have stored in their nests. Solitary bees, however, do not store honey, pollen, or nectar, so when food is scarce, they starve and die.

A honeybee colony, sixty thousand strong, is capable of pollinating an entire apple orchard. But a solitary Red Mason bee, working all alone, can pollinate as many flowers in that apple orchard as over one hundred honey bees. We all have our part to play, individually and together.

Recommends: Steven Falk’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland

Discusses: Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) online course.

Diary of a Young Naturalist – Dara McAnulty

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This is a diary of a 16 year old young man who is knowledgeable about and has a love for nature. This is his daily diary over the course of a year -from March to March, or Spring through Winter to the following spring. He is able to talk about the nature in his day to day life, and how it helps him deal with his families move across Ireland. He talks about how he is autistic, along with members of his family and how that also helps his relationship with nature.

Below I have put some of the key quotes that I took from this book:

‘I spy colts foot, bursts of sunshine from the disturbed ground. White-tailed bumblebees drink and collect hungrily. Dandelions and their allies in the daisy (or Asteracea) family are often the first pollinating plants to flower in spring, and are incredibly important for biodiversity. I implore everything I meet to leave a wild patch in their garden for these plants – it doesn’t cost much and anybody can do it. As nature is pushed to the fringes of our built-up world, it’s the small pockets of wild resistance that can help.’

‘We’re told childishness is wrong, bad almost. I mourn a world without such feelings. A joyless world, a disconnected one. I push the feelings aside. As I close my eyes, all I can see is scuttling tadpoles, springingtailes and a lurking water boatman.’

‘The crops were once cut late, allowing the corncrake pair to breed and raise young. This way of farming has been replaced with more intensive silage-making through spring and summer. This different seasonal rhythm conflicts with the birds – and the unthinkable happens, a life is cut short by the blades. Imagine it. Every egg cracked. The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course.’

‘Out on a stroll, our family are always a motley bunch. We can never control our excitement We are gloriously uninhibited, and our progress is constantly interrupted by a leaf rustle, a flash of feather or a trundling dor beetle. It’s wonderful be together but I can’t always phase out the chatter and flailing arms, the sound of running feet and shrieking laughter. The walks are lovely and maddening.’

‘Every day we are exploring more of the forest park across the road from us, relishing it in small sections, getting to know it like a friend. We have found secret paths among the jays and rooks. We have climbed banks of leaf litter, strayed far off pathways. I can feel my energy returning, and my appetite too. I’ve not felt very hungry for days, but as the emptiness in my head is filled with fresh sights and sounds, the emptiness in my belly needs filling with food again.’

‘We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.’

‘We can create a safe space for nature in our gardens. expecially during the winter months when food is carce. Caring for nature and for ourselves can happen anywhere and everywhere: gardens filled with life, anture reserves, resting spots, feeding spaces, nourishing places. Focusing in on the activity and behaivours of wildlife in our garden is so staisfying, for the mind, for the heart. Homework doesn’t feel like a chore after time spent quierly feeling rain and watching birds. There is nothing better than tending to this connecting between all living things, and maybe even ensuring the survival of some species living in our back gardens and along our busy streets.

On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell into Place

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This book is initially less focused on nature than many of the books nominated for the Wainrights, however it is very much bound with place and identity. The novel focuses on one house, and two pairs of occupants. This is a book that describes a gay couple who lived in this house for a number of years before dying and leaving it to a second couple, Mike Parker and his partner. This book through describing the lives of the occupants talks about the different seasons and the relationships that people have through place – this includes the impact that the changing seasons have on mood and lives.

I have put some parts of the book that I choose to note down as I was reading below,

The author addresses the relationship between the countryside and sexuality:

“the countryside appears at all in gay histories, it is usually only as a place to escape from, and as swiftly as possible. For many of us, this is a pattern that never fitted. Since childhood, the green places have called us the loudest, and although we did the urban thing to burst from the closet, the lure of the rural soon overwhelmed the anonymity of the city. It didn’t even feel like a choice, but something intrinsic that would have been dangerous to resist, like the act of coming out itself.” location 292

The book discusses the impact of seasons on emotion:

“Many people express incredulity that suicide rates peak so dramatically in the spring, since it seems counter-intuitive. Not to me. If you are deep in depression, the winter months act as a projection of your inner self: dark, lethargic and almost comfortably locked in stasis. As the days lengthen, the skies brighten and the chorus of birdsong swells to a crescendo, the gulf widens with alarming speed, and suddenly it can no longer be bridged.” location 626

Mike Parker also talks about migration from England to Wales:

“The 2011 census, 21 per cent of the Welsh population was born in England, more than double the comparable figure for Scotland. While a fraction of this is accounted for by borderland births in Hereford, Shrewsbury or Chester, the bulk are those seeking some version of the downsizers’ dream. Since the 1960s, the number of escapees from urban England into rural Wales has ballooned, attracted by the space, scenery and relatively low property prices. The headline figure tells only part of the story, for the pattern of distribution is uneven, with a far higher proportion of incomers in the Welsh-speaking rural areas of the west, north and middle. There are very few heading to the former coalfields of the Valleys.” location 803

There is also some information about the the freedom that comes from the countryside:

“The first time I met the man who farms all around us, he told me plain: walk anywhere you like. As his family own nearly all of what used to be Rhiw Goch land, that was a blessed relief to hear. I often bump into him up in the fields, our dogs hurtling around together as we chat and laugh, sometimes for the best part of an hour. I’m an extra pair of eyes for him, too, untangling daft lambs from fences and reporting sickly ewes or ailing calves. And as my intimacy with the new landscape grew, so did my confidence and sense of freedom.” location 2,314

Finally the book touches on warming winter fires:

“Fire maintenance was a winter job that George took great pride in: chopping and stacking the wood, drying it out, bringing it in and getting it blazing in the living room, where B&B guests ate and relaxed. So many of the entries in the visitors’ book mention the fire, and it was one of the most vivid of Daniel’s memories: ‘They swore by [the Jøtul stove], and they had it perfect; knew to keep it going overnight, so they were always snug in that room. I never remember it being cold. It’s a very special type of warmth too – it has to be wood.’” location 3,598

Overall an interesting read that talks about how different people experience the landscape and how it changes people for the better.

Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

Rootbound begins with the author describing the relationship she had with nature when she was younger – seeing nature’s offerings as both prosaic and powerful – ammo to be deployed in fantastical battles. Stickyweed to be balled up and tossed towards the victim so they did not know they had it on them. Getting someone to suck on the milky sap on a dandelion, or putting grass seed heads in a friends mouth promising it would make them feel they are flying. But she also talked about knowing the laws of nature – Acorns turn into oak trees, conkers become horse chestnuts, and that stinging nettles were off limits.

The book continues by intertwining the authors personal life along with her relationships with plants, this is very much a book about a relationships with plants rather than a relationship with nature. The book clearly identifies the cyclical nature of gardening, laying out a month by month programme, for example describing January as a time of admin, scrubbing pots, cleaning greenhouses, sharpening tools and pruning fruit trees.

She also chronicles her travels outside of London, to both Amsterdam and Japan. In her travel to Amsterdam she visits ‘Hortus Botanicus’, and this reminds me to ensure when we travel that we need to ensure we visit botanical gardens.

The author talks about how her own love of London wained saying that it became less of a holy grail and somewhere she had to end up in order to work. However she ends up remaining in London though changing flat.

There are also some really interesting snippets that helped improve my knowledge of botany and gardening:

  • Roots are the subterranean skeleton and stomach of a plant. They offer it stability, and they bring it water and minerals. When the plant is working they are its pantry: they keep the energy the plant has generated as its very substance. There are different kinds of root. Taproots, which burrow steadfastly down into the earth; the neatly uniform fibrous roots; and hulking hungry tuberous roots. Creeping roots are the type that you’re most likely to
  • Prepared gardeners, ones keen for movement and action, get ahead with what they can in the last weeks of winter, but by April the gardens have caught up. Buds start to bloom, seeds germinate into lengthening stems that push through the soil that has kept them incubated. After months of gathering energy below the earth the pants subject themselves to the elements beyond it; they feel the pelt of shower and the gaze of the sun, turn towards it in hunger and fascination.
  • Taking lavender branches from one of the bushes on the estate and knifing them into cuttings, carefully placing them around the edges of a pot of gritty sand, with the hope that they’d root to grow by themselves next year. (If you put those newly severed stems by the pot’s edges, right up against the plastic, the roots will hit the base when they develop – it gives them a better chance of entwining with one another, to create a supportive mass. Shove them in the middle and you can end up with roots plummeting right down the hole, too adventurous for their own good.)
  • This time-travelling of gardening – to imagine months ahead – offers a balm. It feels like a magic trick, and one that only gets better with knowledge and experience. That, if you know enough about the plants in question, you can stand in a garden and look at it in the depths of winter and see a vision of lush foliage and frothing blossom, opening flower buds and autumn-painted leaves. It’s a sober hallucination built from anticipation, science and sure-footed faith, much needed when the basic questions of life feel towering.
  • I’VE OFTEN THOUGHT OF GARDENING as being like a language. It cultivates terminologies: rootstock, cutting, grafting, perennial, hardening off, leggy. Words that are understood by those who use and need them but not by the uninitiated. Then there’s the Latin, and the codes it makes that means those who can break it will be able to work out the whole family lineage of a plant in one short sentence.

There are also some really good stories from history such as:

On 8 February, 1913, suffragettes broke into Kew’s much-loved orchid houses, broke some forty panes of glass and damaged the invaluable plants inside. Kew was as popular a tourist attraction in 1913 as it is now – luring some 3.8 million visitors between June and September that year – and the gardens’ director had received warning of an imminent attack from the movement. The women acted in the early hours of the morning and got away with it, but poetically left behind a handkerchief and an envelope inscribed ‘Votes for Women’.

I have not got any snippets of take aways from this book however one particular quote I felt was particularly relevant:

“Learning how to look is vital in gardening, especially for someone as impatient and haste-driven as me. But the balcony supplied near-endless visual satisfaction; I’d hunt out new growth, watch the light play on the leaves, catch the shadows that fell on the concrete floor. As my father did standing by our kitchen window, I’d observe and make endless mental lists of things that needed to change or growth I’d hope to see while my focus fell soft and heavy. It was near-impossible to do just the one quick job on the balcony. A bit of deadheading leads to watering, to tidying and pottering around until the five minutes initially allocated telescopes into hours and my hands – usually brushed roughly on whatever covers my lower half – are stiff with cold and my mind soothed.”

Notes from ‘Slowdown’ by Danny Dorling

This book begins by commenting on the current state of population growth, stating that over the past 160 years our numbers have doubled and almost doubled again; and stating that we will never see such a rise again. This is linked to the title by stating that slowdown (a word first used in the 1890s, meaning to go forward more slowly) affects far more than our rate of population growth. It affects almost every aspect of our lives – because so many of our current belief systems are built on assumptions of rapid future technological change and perpetual economic growth.

I found this book thought provoking, fascinating, and really interesting given the current context.

Key Notes

  • A slowdown in population does not necessarily mean immediate stability, but rather stability to come. Slowdown means that within a century the new global norm will be a slowly shrinking total planetary human population. (Pg. 4)
  • A child born today can expect to live to see the world’s human population shrink – with no disaster needed to bring that about. (Pg. 7)
  • A slowdown is upon us, and this is something to be very thankful for. The alternative- an ever-growing total human population, ever more economically divided societies, ever-greater consumption per head -would be a catastrophe. (Pg. 10)
  • Soon our descendants (or other people’s descendants) will look back at how we are now and ask why we could not see hte transformation that was underway. But, in our defence, it is worth remembering that when you are on a speeding train and the brakes are suddenly applied, you feel that you are being thrown forward. It is only when you look back that you see that you are no longer moving forward as quickly as before. (Pg. 15)
  • Stability does not mean always staying the same. Populations are likely to gently oscillate up and down each generation, more slowly shifting in size after gradually falling for some time following the peak. (Pg. 18)
  • The future rural idyll will depend on urban tourism, not self-sufficiency, but if tourism is well spread out, it need not spoil the idyll. It could even help make reality more like the myth. (Pg. 24)
  • People can easily think immigration is out of control both because they have too little information (“It is too early to say”) and because they are not looking at the information in the clearest way. (Pg. 26)
  • Ridiculous generalisations are repeatedly made concerning the pace of change. We are creating more data than ever, we are told: more information, more knowledge, all swelling in volume at unfathomable rates. Of course there is some truth in this claim, but nevertheless we have not in the past view decades actually discovered significantly more information than over the course of the rest of human history, but this phenomenon mirrors the introduction of new forms of duplication in the past. This time the quantity is much larger, but the shock is not necessarily any grater than before. (Pg. 64)
  • The deluge of new data and new ideas is now slowing down. However I measured it, from Wikipedia page entries to Dutch books to so much else, I have found no time series concerning data that is now still rising exponentially. Everything appears to be decelerating, even if still often going faster than before. (Pg. 85)
  • ‘For way too long the politicians and people in power have got away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and ecological crisis. But we will make sure that they will not get away with it any longer’ Greta Thunberg, 22 April 2019 (Pg. 89).
  • Between 1913 and 1920, annual global CO2 emissions dropped by 1 percent. The greatest fall had been in 1919, during and in the immediate aftermath of when the deadliest outbreak of influenza the world has ever known spread and the number of young adults fit enough to work in industry was severely reduced. The number shrank through illness more than through death, and because people buy much less when they are not well and earning, demand fell. The flue pandemic hit the young particularly hard, which might help explain why global carbon emissions fell by 14 percent between 1918 and 1919, bu then rose by 16 percent the next year after most of the sick had recovered. Influenza had a far greater effect on industry, production, and consumption than the First World War. (Pg. 103)
  • In October 2018 the IPCC produced a report on global warming. The report confirmed that if the additional carbon added to the additional carbon added to the atmosphere could be kept below 420 gigatons of CO2, then there was a 66 per cent change of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius. At the current rate of emissions, that total would be breached by 2013. If the rate of emissions were to continue to increase as it has been doing since 2015, then that limit will be exceeded earlier. In contrast, if action is taken now, the ate by which that limit was breached could be delayed… Climate and ecological protests are one of the few things not slowing down – along with the global rise in surface temperatures. (Pg. 119).
  • Almost everything is slowing down apart from one thing: the rise in temperature of the air around us. Even the rate of growth of CO2 emissions has, within most people’s living memory in some years and in some places been slowing, if not the total amounts of emissions themselves. (Pg. 120)
  • Only within the past five generations have global temperatures noticeably warmed. People born in the years between 1901 and 128 entered the world where on-land average temperatures were just four-thousandths of a degree celsius lower than the second generation. The second generation, people born between 1929 and 1955, experienced five-thousandths of a degree lower than the third generation. Generation X, born between 1956 and 1981, experienced six-thousandths of a degree. Generation Y, those born from 1982 to 2011 experienced temperature rise of fifteen-thousandths of a degree. Generation Z saw in just its first five years of existence an increase thrice as large as that experienced by the fourth. By the time the last members of the fifth generation are born, around the year 2042, the rise is expected to be far higher. (Pg 124-125)
  • By early 2016 it looked as if the global temperature might soon be completely out of control. Sea levels are currently about 130 meters higher than they were twenty thousand years ago. They have risen twenty-three centimetres since 1880 and are currently rising over three centimetres a decade. Increasing extreme weather events magnify the seriousness of ay sea level rise. Melting of all the ice caps and glaciers could potentially raise it by many tense of meters. Just one meter would be devastating for much of humanity. Have we entered a period of very dangerous ‘positive feedback’ as a result of changes that have already happened? (Pg 130)
  • It has been obvious for some time to a small group of demographers that the human population slowdown began many decades ago, but just how rapid that slowdown is has been apparent only more recently. This is true when people are counted across the globe as a whole, but the slowdown began even earlier in certain countries and especially when it comes to very low birth rates, within a few cities in those countries. (Pg141)
  • There are four areas of the world we have yet to discuss: the population in the sky which is still rising and reached over 1.3 million people, or two hundred thousand planes, in 2018; the population on ships, which has not been calculated; the population of Antarctica; and the population in space. Antarctica is home to just under one thousand people in winter and just under four thousand in summer. The international space station peaked at a population of thirteen in 2009. (Pg 179)
  • Fertility rates were falling through the 1998-2016 period when viewed as a worldwide total, but between 2001 and 2003, and then 2004 and 2006, they appeared to be falling more and more slowly. However, after 2014, the hesitant trend was no longer evident; the fall in fertility was again accelerating. (Pg 186)
  • A time is coming when rampant consumption will wane’ when it is recognised that wealth does not engender happiness, and that much advertising is designed to create jealousy; when the lives of most people will be improved by better organisation and cooperation, not by more competition; and when now understand that much that is enjoyable is free or virtually free – dramatically more so with the rise of the World Wide Web. Love, friendship, and caring preceded capitalism and will outlive it. Capitalism is a transition, not a steady state. The protesters of 1968 were simply ahead of their time. (Pg 215)
  • What matters most is that our fertility will soon reach two children per couple worldwide: it is already a reality for most people, and the rate is falling even faster and further in the world’s major cities. It may well, for a time, fall below two per couple worldwide for a generation or two or three. After that, we do not know. (Pg 230).
  • Capitalism may well come to an end with a whimper, not a bang. Feudalism came to an end almost everywhere when traders began to arrive and settle, using their capital to invest and their armies to impose. So, too, it is possible that capitalism is already being pushed out from certain parts of the world by governments that use money raised from taxation to invest and employ the rule of law to better the behaviour of the rich. At first, we will not see the change as that much different than what we had before. We may just tell ourselves that certain places have a more protective welfare state and are less entrepreneurial, although invention tends to be higher where there is more cooperation; we may say that these places have more of a tradition of supporting the rights of women, although this is a tradition that was hard won. We might argue that these trends have grown a little more strongly in particular cultures, but then we might also notice that, in general, the areas where these changes are happening are spreading.(Pg 236)
  • Geopolitics is about time as much as space. WE are currently learning more about our distant past than we have ever known. What is it possible for humans to be? Very recently a team of U.S.-based archaeologists working near Lake Turkana in Kenya discovered graves that led them to conclude that five thousand years ago, large groups of people once shared their workload without significant social hierarchy – successfully, generation after generation for centuries. (Pg 264)
  • The global economic slowdown is so great that the rich cannot carry on getting ever richer. In 1950 the worldwide average GDP per person rose by about $156 in today’s money, or by about 4.3 percent. By 2015 it rose by $158, or nearer to 1.6 percent a year – almost three times slower. And these snapshots are taking from the economists high points! (Pg 297).
  • Since live began on Earth, there have been five major mass extinction events. Some six out of seven of all the planet’s species died around 450 million years ago due to global cooling, then about 380 to 260 million years ago three-quarters were wiped out, probably due to multiple causes, including falling CO2 levels and climate cooling. About 250 million years ago there was again very rapid climate change, a five-degree warming, and only one species in every twenty survived. Some 200 million years ago the climate changed again and only one in five species on Earth survived, and then the last of the great vie mass extinctions occurred around 65 million years ago when an asteroid, six to nine miles wide, hit Earth, and three out of four of all species (including almost all of the dinosaurs) became extinct. Today we are just a few decades into the sixth and most rapid of all the mass extinctions. Humanity has had a worse effect on the biodiversity of the planet than a huge asteroid. However, at the very same time, we have shipped more surviving species around the planet than have ever travelled between the islands of the Earth so quickly before, and we may well be doing other things that will accelerate the appearance of new species. We have almost no idea of the repercussions of any of this. (Pg 302).
  • In 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the first powered airplane took to the skies with a wingspan of twelve meters. Today the sky is full of monster planes, the largest objects that have ever flown – and inside them is us. They now transport 4 billion passengers every year, and thus far we show now signs of slowing down in our keenness for air travel, unless we become forced to do so by the introduction of new carbon taxes on flying. These taxes have already been instituted in Sweden and are now proposed for France. I suspect there will be many more in place in other countries before this book is printed. (Pg304)
  • Slowdown means goods lasting longer; it means less waste. It means that many of the things that we currently thinkg of as great social and environmental problems will not be problematic in future. WE will, of course, have new problems – most of which we cannot even imagine right now. And we will, of course, do things we have always done, adn that we did long before the great acceleration began, throughout it, and after it- enjoying friends, fun, family. What do you hope for in the future? (Pg 331)

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

This post is the first in a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This book is a personal tale that looks at birdwatching as a form of therapy. The author talks about his anxiety, and OCD, and how birdwatching was a way to improve his mental health. However the book is less a self help guide and more a guide to how to birdwatch. The author discusses a number of different approaches to birdwatching and which he prefers. The book begins with the author setting the context for his use of ‘Bird Therapy’. That is is own anxiety, his OCD and workplace stress. This is then linked by the five ways to wellbeing:

  1. To connect
  2. To take notice
  3. To give
  4. To keep learning
  5. To be active.

The author states how well these five things can be provided through birdwatching. He asks ‘what was the first bird you really took notice of?’ He explains that nature and birdwatching can provide stability, an anchor to the present and provide grounding.

The author talks about taking more fo an interest in birdwatching and his Bird Therapy as the start of the next chapter of his life. He states “I started to recognise just how positive I felt when I was immersed in the world of birds. My worries seemed to fad into insignificance and when I was feeling stress, if I counteracted it with some time outside, watching them, it drifted off like birds do, in a stiff breeze. I became aware of some relief from certain symptoms – low mood and lack of motivation – and noted elation and what I would describe as ‘ultra-positivity’. Quite simply, I started to feel a lot better.” This is a form of ecotheropy, a range of regular and structured activities that take place outdoors and are beneficial to wellbeing.

When starting out watching birds the author recommends getting to know the birds in your own garden or any nearby outdoor space, and notice how they behave and interact. Develop a sense of ‘being’ whilst birdwatching, rather than overtly trying. Take time to notice the intricacies of feather patterns and markings. Reference is made to citizen science projects invovle birds – including the BTO Garden BirdWatch schsme and also the RSPB Garden Birdwatch.

One aspect Joe talks about is the concept of falling in love with his local area as an alternative to driving across the country to tick off particular species. He then goes on to say “consider finding yourself a local birdwatching patch. The consistency and security that visiting a regular patch provides can also help you connect with yourself and with nature”. He links this to the enjoyment of birdwatching for appreciation, and the natural enjoyment of birds, rather than the pressure of checking off birds on a list. This includes listening to natural sounds, accepting the whole soundscape, rather than becoming too focused on individual bird sounds. Visiting a regular patch allows you to tune into the daily, monthly, and seasonal rhythms of life.

Specific mention is made of birdwatching in the winter. Winter is frequently a difficult time for those who struggle with mental health – symptoms of depression can worsen during the winter months. Birds unite in winter, the more there are in a flock the more they can do – multiple eyes to look for predators, food, and shelter. In the winter birdwatchers are able to savour and enoy unforgetable moments and spectacles.

Following winter is spring and this is heralded by the first singnign chiffchaff of the year, as it returns in mid-March it acts as a portent of the vernal equinox. During the spring there is also birds passing through on migration known as ‘spring passage’. We can enjoy the chronological return of warblers, and get to know the order in which they arrive and embrace the marvel of their migratory journey. Keeping records is a way a of providing others with a window into our world. The compendiums of lists, notes, dates and times are so much more than just notebooks on nature.

The author explains that the act of learning about birds is a key part of the benefits of birdwatching referencing NHS guidance on wellbeing that lifelong learning is beneficial to boost confidence, self-esteem, build a sense of purpose, and help us connect with others. He also discusses the physical impacts of bird watching that it provides ways to keep both the mind and body active.

The author towards the conclusion of the book talks about how birdwatchers develop their own memory bank of how each bird looks and behaves, stating that in birdwatching this ‘feel’ for a bird has its own name ‘jizz’ – the general impression and character that distinguishes it from another species. The idea of recognising a bird’s jizz is innate to each observer’s perception of a bird. This is how experienced birdwatchers are able to identify a bird at a distance.

Key Takeaways

  • The benefit of watching a particular patch – not for the number of species but for watching the species that are there and also the seasonal change.
  • Feeding birds is an activity that can increase connection with nature and increase wellbeing.

This book linked with my own interest in birdwatching, I am much more interested in watching birds in my garden, local area, or incidentally rather than travelling to find specific birds (though I would like to see a Bittern).

Reading the Wainwrights

Yesterday the Longlist for the 2020 Wainwright prize was announced ( this year there are two categories, UK Nature Writing, and Writing for Global Conservation.

The Wainwright prize has been going since 2014 and is designed to celebrate the best in nature writing. The prize was named after Alfred Wainwright, author of the hillwalking series about the lakeland fells.

I have read (before the announcement) one in each category, Rebirding, and Dancing with Bees. My plan is to read the rest and blog about it as I go along, and produce a blog post about each book.

The shortlist is announced on 30th July, which gives me approximately 3 days a book, which will be just about achievable. I am going to read in a fairly random order – based in part on what I can get my hands on – and will be a mixture of physical and ebooks (and hopefully some from the library if they reopen as planned in the beginning of July).

The longlist of each category is listed below, as I read I will update each title to a link of my blog post about each title.

2020 Longlist for Nature Writing

Bird Therapy – Joe Harkness

Dancing with Bees – Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Dark, Salt, Clear – Lamorna Ash

Diary of a Young Naturalist – Dara McAnulty

Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape – Patrick Laurie

On the Red Hill – Mike Parker

Rootbound – Alice Vincent

Surfacing – Kathleen Jamie

The Frayed Atlantic Edge – David Gange

The Well Gardened Mind – Sue Stuart-Smith

Wanderland – Jini Reddy

Wild Child – Patrick Barkham

Wintering – Katherine May

2020 Longlist for Writing on Global Conservation

Bloom: From Food to Fuel – Ruth Kassinger

Greenery – Tim Dee

Harvest – Edward Posnett

Irreplaceable – Julian Hoffman

Life Changing – Helen Pilcher

Losing Eden – Lucy Jones

Notes from an Apocalypse – Mark O’Connell

Rebirding – Benedict Macdonald

Sitopia – Carolyn Steel

What we need to do now – Chris Goodall

Working with Nature – Jeremy Purseglove

The aim for this reading project is to continue to develop my understanding of both the natural environment and nature writing. Furthermore as a geography teacher I hope to get some useful information to embed in my teaching.

Notes from ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now’

This book starts with a statement about cats – and about how cats rule the internet – they make the memiest memes and cutest videos. However it also makes another point about cats and the internet – the author states that cats have done the impossible – they have integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. This book is about how to be a cat – remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance, and constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which are being paid to manipulate your behaviour.

Argument One – You are loosing your free will.

Everyone who is on social media is getting individualised, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones. What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behaviour modification on a titanic scale.

Behaviour modification entails methodical techniques that change behavioural patterns in animals and people. It can be used to treat addictions, but it can also be used to create them. Using symbols instead of real rewards has become an essential trick in the behavioural modification toolbox.

One of the main reasons to delete your social media account is that there isn’t a real choice to move to different social media accounts. To free yourself, to be more authentic, to be less addicted, to be less manipulated, to be less paranoid…for all these reasons, delete your accounts.

Argument Two – Quitting Social Media is the Most Finely Targeted Way to Resist the Insanity of Our Times

The author creates six components of social media, or what he calls the Bummer machine. Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy, Butting into everyones lives, cramming content down people’s throats, directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible, earning money from letting people secretly screw with everyone else, and fake mobs and faker society.

Argument Three – Social Media is Making you an Asshole

Through social media your identity becomes packified. You become less of an individual and more involved in groupthink.

The author concludes this chapter by saying ‘Your character is the most precious ting about you. Don’t let it degrade’.

Argument Four – Social Media is Undermining Truth

There have always been weird waves of untruth in society, but in order to progress into our comfortable modernity, we gradually found a way to truth, together. What is different in recent years is many of us no longer directly interrogate facts.

Argument Five – Social Media is Making What You Say Meaningless

Online, we have little or no ability to know or influence the context into which our expression will be understood. What you say is not meaningful without context. Speaking through social media is not really speaking at all. Context is applied to what you say after you say it, for someone else’e purposes and profit.

Argument Six – Social Media is Detroying You Capacity for Empathy

This argument is the flip side of the argument about how social media makes you meaningless. Other people are also becoming meaningless; you understand less about what is going on with them. When through social media we are all seeing different private worlds, our cues to one another become meaningless, and our perception of reality beyond social media becomes meaningless.

Argument Seven – Social Media Is Making You Unhappy

Argument Eight – Social Media Doesn’t Want You to Have Economic Dignity

The social media business model is based on the assertion that there is only one possible way for digital services to work, which is that you, the individual user, must be made subservient. One way to reverse this would be to directly monetise services such as search and social media. You’d pay a low monthly fee to use them, but if you contributed a lot – if your posts, videos, or whatever are popular – you could also earn some money. The author states he won’t have an account on social media until he can both pay for it and also be paid for using his data.

Argument Nine – Social Media is Making Politics Impossible

Social Media undermines the political process and hurts millions of people, but as so many of these people are addicted to social media all they can do is complain about the catastrophe it has brought about. Facebook and other social media platforms are becoming the ransomware of human attention. They have such a hold on so much of so many people’s attention that they are gatekeepers to brains.

Facebook has published research about increasing voter turnout. In the published research, facebook used the cheerful example of boosting voter turnout, however as facebook is all about targeting it can use that ability to target the work to increase voter turnout on certain demographics – it is not a politically neutral exercise.

Argument Ten – Social Media Hates Your Soul

When we talk about politics, culture, art, or law, it’s possible that quantity can’t replace quality, even though we can’t say what quality is.