I resisted Twitter for years before succumbing to it.  And now I’m there, I really like it, mostly because I follow some interesting sites which constantly tweet links to articles I might enjoy (and I generally do enjoy them).  The trouble lies when I start to read the comments.  I mean, this is the internet, so why am I surprised that comments can be like diving in a cesspool?  Generally, I avoid them, but sometimes… I guess I’m my own worst enemy.

The other day, I read an article about overpopulation where I became mired in the comments.  I didn’t respond, so at least I have some semblance of sense, but there were people who did annoy me.  Mostly, because they remind me of myself, and because I’m now on the defensive.

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Le mot juste.

You know you’ve been with someone a long time, when not only do they know exactly which buttons to push to annoy you, but when you can see it happening.

Case in point: I was discussing this week’s blog post with the Handsome Sidekick over a cup of tea, last night.

‘Nobody cares about languages,’ he said. ‘What a waste of time. They should just die out. Pointless. We should just all speak the same one.’

‘Argh! It is so NOT POINTLESS,’ I began, then checked myself. ‘And I know you’re just saying this to wind me up.’

And he laughed.

I really, really love language. I love English, a lot, but I also love many other languages. I love that so many other languages even exist. I can only speak English, German and a smattering of French, and with those two, plus English, I can decipher written Dutch (I’m lost if it’s spoken, though) and get the gist of a page of Spanish or Italian. But even through just this small insight into worlds of words other than my own, I’m smitten.

I love language, and I worry about its future. In a sense, there is no use in worrying about it. There is little I can do. Language evolves, either in spite, or in direct defiance, of any kinds of rules we try to impose to prevent it. But I’m not just worried about languages evolving, I’m worried about them dying.

I know, it seems like such a trivial concern. There are far bigger issues: poverty, conflict, pollution. And I don’t want to argue that losing language is life-threatening like those issues. But it occurred to me the other day, that there are some similarities between the conservation of the physical, and the metaphysical. Sometimes we go to great lengths to prevent a species from going extinct, just because the extinction of that species would diminish biodiversity that little bit more. It’s possible that some of the species we save, we could easily allow to go extinct. The space they leave might well be filled by some other species. But we don’t know for sure. The interrelationships of species are something we don’t always understand, and history has taught us that it’s often more complex than it appears. So, for safety’s sake, we are cautious. We don’t want to let something go, and then discover later that it was far more significant than we had first realised.

The diversity I’ve found in language is inspiring. It’s not always translatable, which is one of the reasons I think people dismiss it. I remember reading a line in a poem by Paul Éluard, when I was studying first year French at uni. I wasn’t very good at French, but I really wanted to be, and so I worked hard at the translations we were set each week. This line, though, sticks with me, because I didn’t need to translate it to understand it. It’s the last line of the poem, Ma morte vivante:

‘J’étais si près de toi que j’ai froid près des autres.’*

Oh, it made me want to cry. I both understood what he meant, and I understood what he meant. I felt a real sense of worldliness, that I had shared this person’s grief in his language, rather than having to translate it through to my own. It was not something I would say in English, but I still got it.

Learning German, on the other hand, was a lot more practical and day-to-day. I spent everyday speaking and reading it, so by the time I left, I found I was more likely to think in German than I was in English. I felt so at home there, and I was so very sad to leave. As I said a tearful goodbye to one of my favourite teachers, my music teacher, he replied, ‘Du. Es tut mir so leid, dass du gehst.’**

In German, saying ‘sorry’ seems to carry more weight. You say, ‘es tut mir leid,’ literally: it does pain to me. And I understood that. It did pain to me to go, too.

We use so many words we’ve borrowed from other languages, everyday. How dull and one-dimensional our culture and conversation would be, if we didn’t! I feel like we’re so lucky that we have so many languages on which to draw, to be able to communicate. Learning languages other than one’s own–even learning more of one’s own!–has been associated with the promotion of higher order thinking. So it is good for your brain, to learn a new language. And it helps promote cultural understanding; it keeps alive literature which would otherwise be lost or left not quite fully appreciated. It broadens our experiences, it improves our vocabularies. It provides connections with the past; it is a part of our identity. But I really believe it does something else. It gives us diversity. Without a variety of languages, we humans lack diversity. Like those pockets of wilderness, preserved to maintain some small plant or animal, we need to preserve at least pockets of language, if not huge sweeping plains.

If we let our languages die, then we become less. We can live without the diversity of words, of course. And as far as basic needs go, we only need to be able to communicate those needs and our desires. We could easily lose a few languages–several, in fact–and we would still be able to talk with each other, and write and read. But I just can’t help feeling like the world would be a little less incredible, and that we would only realise what we’d lost, when we couldn’t get it back.

*Roughly: ‘I was so close to you that I feel cold near others.’

**’You [but in a tender sense, not rudely]. I’m so sorry that you go.’

Fracking: A Dialogue.

(Green) I was walking down by the lake the other day, as I had not been there for some time, and I wished to see how it was faring.

(Grey) And how did you find it?

I found it lonely. The beauty that surrounded it was gone, there was no birdsong, no frogs. The wildlife had all but vanished from the area. It was like visiting a foreign place.

— There is a festival tonight, said Purple, in honour of the new year.  We should go.  There will be fireworks, and dancing and music.

That is a fine idea.  But first, let us eat.

And so we went to the house of Purple, and there were many others, Orange, and Yellow, and Pink, and Blue, and Blue sat with me, and we talked, and he said to me, ‘I noticed that you were at the market the other day.  What was it you and the others were shouting about?’

(Green) Well, I am surprised you ask.

(Blue) You are not possibly still insistent upon protesting this.  We have talked about it at length, and nobody can deny that it is important for our society to have a reliable source of energy — a source that is, as yet, untapped, simply waiting for us to release it to the people.

(Green) And therein lies the problem.  You say that we have talked about it at length, and then jump swiftly into claims that you know I cannot refute: namely, that we need energy and that the reserves are the ideal solution.  You use words such as ‘people’ and ‘untapped’ to imply that it is our right to take such a resource, without considering whether there are other consequences in doing so.

(Blue) And you would deny us that right?  Who has the right to it, then?  Some supernatural power?  Some mystical earth-spirit?

(Green)  Here, you mock me.  Is it not possible to be concerned for the impact of such an operation, without it bearing any relation to spirits?  And why should you bring that up, when I did not even mention it?  You wish, perhaps, to discredit my argument, by showing that my brethren may find solace in gods and goddesses, whereas yours have only interest in science.

(Blue) Is that not true?  Several of your ilk believe in a mystical being.

(Green) Whether or not that is true, it does not prevent us from also having concern for the planet.  There are other reasons to contradict what you are saying — the health of all involved, concern for other beings than humans, conservation of the wilderness, … and none is more important than the other, rather, each has a vital part to play, which cannot be dismissed so easily.  Yet, I digress, and you know this.  My argument was, that you are moving from a point on which we both agree, to a conclusion which is by no means self-evident or logical.  Simply stating that there is something we need, and then concluding that your method is how to achieve it, is but a fallacious argument.

(Blue) How, then?  Our society grows, flourishes, and you would have us live as cave-dwellers?  

(Green)  Again, it pains me to hear what you are saying.  I know that you are learned, and perhaps this is what perturbs me most: that you would pretend to ignore any other solutions than that which you are proposing.  When you claim we would return to uncivilised society, you are fear-mongering, so that those who listen feel they must agree to all your reasons, lest they give up their modern conveniences.  But you do not allow that there may be other ways — the sun, the wind.  I hesitate to suggest that this is because there is so little financial gain for you?

(Blue) But such cynicism!  There are a myriad of examples of how we give back to society.

(Green)  Cynical I may be, but I would argue that these examples are mere token gifts, in order to further your cause.

(Blue)  You wound me, with such distrust.  Have we not agreed that we desire the same ends?

(Green)  Agreed.  We both desire that society would have the resources it requires, but the means to such ends, that is where our desires diverge.  That you would not only poison our waters, but also lie about doing so?  That is where my disdain for you is deepest.

(Blue) These accusations are unfounded.  Where is your evidence?  You accuse me of false conclusions, and yet you have nothing to reinforce your own?

(Green) It is true that I have little proof, and I cannot help but believe it is your deception which prevents me from gaining it.  Yes, I realise: yet another unfounded accusation.  But you insist on using money, fear, to promote your business.  Surely, if there were nothing to fear from the way in which you conduct it, that would not be necessary.

(Blue) You believe we use tactics.  As we do.  This is a business, after all.  We succeed in it, we deliver on promises.  The people demand a resource.  We supply it.  That is all that needs to be said on the matter.  How could you deny us this opportunity to supply a demand?

(Green) For the reasons I have mentioned before: that it will be a short-lived resource, and it does not guarantee supply for our future.  That it is damaging, and you are paying to hide this.  You argue that there are those among us who believe in gods and so must be dismissed, you argue that our claims about poison and destruction are invalid, you disagree with our evidence because we cannot prove that your work is the cause of it.  Yet I put it to you, that such arguments are based on lies.

(Blue) I will not defend myself against this, nor should I need to.  So far, commerce has spoken in our favour, and if you would wish to prevent us from harvesting this resource, then it is commerce to which you must appeal.

(Green) Perhaps the truest words you have spoken all evening, my friend.  I do, truly, believe that I can celebrate the ethical validity of my position, yet as much as it saddens me to concede, it is money, not morals, which will convince those who dictate the machinations of our world.  However, I can only appeal to those who would give them power.  Surely, in the absence of the gold you possess, the threat of removing our leaders from power would be persuasive?

(Blue) Ha, you show too much trust.  We represent the way it has always been.  For you to change it, requires more people than you yet have, more voices, from a louder public.

(Green) This has been done before.  We have managed before.

(Blue) That was in different times.

(Green) The times are not so different, neither the people.  It can be done.  I sense your scepticism, but I have powerful hope.  Change is indeed a strong and powerful promise, and time will tell my story.

(Blue) With such rhetoric, you may win over some.  But still: it is money, and only money, which will lend success to your cause.  Time may tell your story, but the present belongs to us. Let me lend you advice: you must appeal to these elements within our society, you must gain the ear of the rich and the powerful with messages about riches and power.  Then, the benefits of which you speak will follow.  

(Green) That is, if the greed for riches and power do not corrupt us first.  It grieves me that our appeals to the better natures of those who wield decisions, must come in the guise of money.

(Blue) That is the way of the world.

(Green) Still, I hold on to hope.


OK, so it’s not really a Socratic dialogue!  There are too few characters, and I’ve written it more like a script, because I worried that it would be otherwise too difficult to follow.  But the point is, one of the problems, when discussing environmental issues, is that they tend to be emotive, and that fits poorly with the economic model by which we seem to run our countries and our lives.  It is often not considered ‘worth’ saving a species or an area, because we are not getting any net profit from it.  Such intangible concepts as diversity for the sake of diversity, or the importance of green areas on our mental health, don’t have direct economic consequences.  This makes it difficult for the economist (or the company spokesperson or the accountant) and the environmentalist, to come together in dialogue.  But here, I force them together!  Yay for philosophy!  If Socrates and Plato would have wanted anything, I’m sure they would want us to use interrogative thought and introspection and discussion, to try to find common ground, and work around the problems of economic growth versus environmental conservation.  

(I was trying to come up with some Greek-sounding names to give to the voices in this, but my Greek is… non-existent!  And they were awful!  So I’ve just given them colours.  It makes it easier to tell who’s who, anyway, and avoids gender and cultural bias to boot.)

Our federal elections are in a few weeks’ time.  I’d love a debate about fracking, the future of our energy supply, and how much money is going to be invested in alternative energy sources so that we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels.  But that’s unlikely to happen.  No doubt, once we can light our water on fire, people may start paying attention.  Wouldn’t it be a shame if we had to wait for that?

You Can Always Get What You Want.

I’m ten years old.  Or nine, or eleven.  Around that time, anyway — the precise age is not important.

It’s lunchtime, and the students in my little school have emptied out of their classroom and are rummaging in their school bags for their lunchboxes.  Soon, the cacophony begins to wane, and the children sit down on the floor, cross-legged, and start to eat their lunches.  

There’s the usual suspects of white bread and polony or cheese and Vegemite.  Most children have homemade cake wrapped in greaseproof paper, or perhaps some sweet biscuits.  

For the record, I never had those things.  Poor, deprived child that I was, my mother used to insist on packing sandwiches made with wholemeal bread, and for snacks, I would have yoghurt, or almonds and dried apricots, or an orange.  Nobody wanted to swap lunch with me.

Except for days like this.  My father had been in Perth the day before, and he drove the three hundred and sixty kilometres home, bringing with him a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Sure, by the time he got home, I was asleep, and it was well and truly cold by then anyway (my mother put it straight in the ‘fridge) but the next morning, I could take it with me in my lunchbox to have for my lunch.  

Cold fried chicken.  I am the envy of every child in the school.  All twenty-five of them.

Do you remember, when fast food was a treat?  When I was young, we didn’t have the access to it, mainly because of our relative isolation.  We were twenty minutes’ drive from the nearest ‘town’ which had (and still has) one small general store, a hall, a wheat silo, a mechanic, and a few houses — really, that’s it.  The next town was about forty-five minutes away, with TWO supermarkets(!!), a post office and high school, several houses, and a pub… but still no fast food restaurant.  Fast food — apart from what you could buy from some service-stations — was just not accessible everyday.

For the last few weeks, the Handsome Sidekick and I have been trying to return to healthy eating habits which fall by the wayside when we’re both too tired to think, which has been quite often, in the recent past.  We’re eating more raw food, reducing our already fairly limited intake of meat, keeping chocolate for the occasional treat, eating smaller pieces of cake*, and checking our portion sizes.  The result is that we’re (very slowly) losing some weight, and we seem to have more energy.  We also feel a lot healthier — whether that’s psychosomatic, who knows?  These were benefits I expected.  But the element I didn’t factor in was just how amazing food can taste, when you limit it.  How good it is, to look forward to a meal, to be really hungry, and then feel immensely content after you’ve finished eating.

A friend of mine is observing Ramadan this month.  He is not a Muslim, but fasting is part of his weekly routine, and as a spiritual person, he appreciates the value of depriving oneself of food, and of prayer and meditation during that time.  Reading what he had to say about the sense of calm one feels with an empty stomach, I could understand the desire to participate.  Restricting food in this sense allows us to realise how precious a thing it is, and how good we have it, when we have enough to satisfy our hunger.

It led me to think about delayed gratification, and how there is so little of that.  We don’t deny ourselves much, these days, do we?  We lament the way we can’t have things, but it’s an external force (usually money) which doesn’t allow us, rather than it being a case of self-denial.  Money really can buy anything — you can get whatever you want, whenever you want.  It used to be that certain clothes or food or shoes or cars were only available in particular countries or areas. That’s no longer the case.  If you have the money, you can get it.

Can't always get what you want?  Well, actually...

Can’t always get what you want? Well, actually…

And obviously, people do.  They pay the money — or put it on credit — and get it.  It’s available; and taken on face value, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have what they want.

Take Disneyland for example.  It started with a single theme park, and now they can be found from Paris to Hong Kong and in between.  Having more than one Disney theme park means that more people can visit.  The Disney experience is open to a wider audience.  But does it cheapen the value of the original?

Those building the new parks would perhaps argue that they’re ensuring the experience is accessible, that it avoids elitism.  I’d argue that it ruins the uniqueness, the specialness, of these ‘things’ we used to be able to only get somewhere else, or at a certain time of year.  Of course, restriction of anything means that less people will be able to have it, or enjoy it.  But doesn’t that make it all the more special when you can?  When you finally manage to travel to California, after years of wanting to, and get your picture taken with Goofy, or ride on the roller coaster of your dreams?  Or when you finally sit down to eat after a long fast, or when you finally get to read that book, or watch that film or kiss that person?

Just because we can have whatever we want, doesn’t mean we should.  The mere fact that it’s available shouldn’t mean we feel obliged to get it.  Business models being what they are, if there is a market for something, then it will be marketed.  But we have a choice.  We can choose not to eat it, or visit it, or buy it, or do it.  Whereas before, availability was the limiting factor, now it’s us.  It’s up to us to limit ourselves, to have some self-control.  Only then is it possible to really embrace and savour the experience.  Only then can we feel as if we truly deserve it, that it’s really worthwhile.    

*I know what you’re thinking.  But I’m OK with this.  Really!

Horses for courses.

The recent furore over the discovery of horsemeat in food labelled ‘beef’ in Europe has obviously highlighted several issues with the modern foodchain, from how we treat animals we’re going to eat, to where we source those animals, to what other unknown substances might be present in these kinds of meals.  It’s fair to say that there have been some smug vegetarians around the place lately.

A predictable outcome of this is a call for people to eat more whole foods and to source those foods locally.  Buying burgers from a fast food chain, or frozen ready-meals from a supermarket means we’re removing ourselves from our link to the food itself.  When you have the opportunity to buy directly from the supplier, you can discuss with him or her what you want the meat for, and give feedback on the quality the next time you visit.  Sure, if you buy a frozen meal and it’s not up to standard, you can talk to the manager of the store and you might receive your money back, and an apology.  But it’s unlikely to set real change in motion, especially if the person of the person who’s slaughtering the meat (or preparing the vegetables, for that matter) is several thousand kilometres away.  So it does make sense to try and buy food from the people who grow it, or at least to try and close the gap as much as possible between producer and consumer.  

Therefore, it’s argued, in an ideal world, people would grow their own food, or barter goods or services with others to get what  they needed.  Having purchased or harvested their food, people would then cook it themselves or together with others, and share it with families or friends.  Or eat alone, if that’s what they chose.  

The trouble is, even such a simple scenario relies on several elements.  Obviously access to local food is the most apparent, and this is perhaps where most of the focus is placed — if everyone were able to source locally grown food, then something like the horsemeat scandal wouldn’t have occurred.  In fact, this kind of accessibility would solve many problems.

However, it’s not just whether the food is available.  There are several other issues.  Can the consumer travel to get the food?  How expensive is it?  Does the consumer have the ability to store the food until it’s ready to prepare and eat?  And perhaps most importantly, does the consumer have the skills and the time and the energy to cook a meal from that produce?  It is all too easy to assume that, given the ingredients, people will be able to cook a meal from scratch.  And for all the other variables which prevent people from achieving the ideal scenario — a meal cooked from scratch with locally sourced ingredients — I believe it is the lack of knowledge which is the greatest problem, because it is the one which is most often overlooked.  

Overwhelmingly, food is becoming more expensive.  It’s cheaper in some places than in others, but for most of us, it costs more than it used to, and people on a fixed income must find ways to split their finite financial resources more ways than in the past.  How then, to ensure that the population stays healthy and that the produce available to them is sustainably produced?  How to ensure that the people growing and manufacturing our food are fairly paid, fairly treated, and that our food is what we think it is?

We can attempt to make food more affordable, yet this often results in farmers being paid even less than their current moderate wage.  Indeed, there is currently an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to find out if our two major supermarkets are using underhand and/or illegal tactics in their dealings with suppliers.   Meanwhile, both supermarket chains are promoting themselves as affordable and saving money for families. We need to ask ourselves where we sit in this foodchain — we call for cheaper food, but we also want it to be organic, fair trade, free range.  Are we part of the problem, as well?  

I wonder if we need a new approach to food in general.  It really is crazy that we should be eating food which is manufactured thousands of kilometres away, in another country.  This model is both nonsensical and unsustainable; however, any alternative probably involves some lifestyle changes that many would be unwilling, or in some cases, unable to make.  

Ready-meals fill a gap in the market.  They are there for people who are not able to cook a meal from raw ingredients, either because they can’t, or they choose not to, or they don’t have the time or knowledge to do so.  In some circles, there is judgement about this — and I’ll confess that I’ve been a food snob in the past (and probably still am, to some degree).  Then, when my youngest child was a week old, I fell and injured my wrist, and ended up in plaster up to my elbow.  Everything was difficult; everything required a re-think.  Especially cooking.  Ready meals became my friend, and all at once, I cursed my former dismissal of pre-prepared food.  Still, I felt as if I were eating second-rate food, and wished there were a way around it.  

In stepped my family and friends.  We lived off soup and lasagne for a week, courtesy of my sister.  Another friend dropped over with a homemade salad and fresh bread.  Our community really came through for us.  We needed help — and food — and they were there without us even having to ask.  

And that’s perhaps what’s missing.  That attractively photographed meal (and let’s face it, the food inside the box never seems to look like the picture on the outside!) fills a hole; it stops us from going hungry.  But it’s not the same as a home-cooked meal.  When we eat packet, ready-made food, we’re removing ourselves from the reality of food preparation, and when we rely on them for sustenance, we lose touch with what it is to be a human animal.  There are those who don’t have the ability to prepare their own meals, and it should be a priority that they don’t have to rely on second-rate food.  There are those who don’t have the time or the knowledge, and I believe that is a small tragedy in itself, too.  Because while I definitely understand the meaning of time poverty, I also cherish the value of keeping alive the knowledge of how to create something whole out of so many parts.  

Community, skills, knowledge.  It is all part of the same complex mix.  Buying pre-prepared food is a choice people are able to make, and we certainly need to ensure that there are enforced regulations to prevent contamination in the food we buy.  But we also need to ask ourselves what is important to us, what kinds of foods we want to eat, and to realise that if we’re leaving the preparation and cooking of our food up to someone else, then we’re not going to necessarily know — or like — what they’re putting in it.