I’ll begin this six-month, solstice update on a downbeat note. Earlier this week, I was scheduled to instruct my first Duke of Edinburgh Award Silver Expedition.
I was very excited about this event, not only because I’d be working in the G.O.D. (Great Out Doors) with more experienced, enthusiastic young people, but also because it was in the New Forest, a wilderness I’ve not much explored (despite the fact it’s only forty minutes down the road).
Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of Covid at the school and they had to cancel. A shocking reminder that shit is still very much going down and we are lucky to be able to get outdoors whenever and however we can. Make the most of it, people.
Cumulative Days of Adventure so far: 28
According to my optimistic Equinox Update, I’d been hoping to get through 36 DoA by this point. Given that four days of outdoor work have been cancelled over the past couple of weeks, I’m not too far off my ambition.
By the time I get home, I could be on 75 DoA. That still leaves a pretty stiff target of eight days for each of the winter months—but I’m hoping that my soon-to-be-booked Hill and Moorland Leader assessment will light a fire under my efforts to get outside a-venturing.
That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.
After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.
Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.
An indoor species
It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.
It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:
We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total. ~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)
By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.
Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.
It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.
What has the outdoors ever done for us?
A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.
As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:
If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.
Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.
In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:
There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.
‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’
A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.
Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.
Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.
In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.
As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.
I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:
It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly! ~ Yu Huan, Weilue
In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.
The reality we simulate
In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:
What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.
If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:
WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
Email instead of love letters
Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
Video calls instead of birthday parties
Emojis instead of touch
These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.
But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:
The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.
The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.
But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.
The reality that bleeds
Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.
The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.
The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.
The Shock and The Reason
The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.
We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.
Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.
The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:
Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.
In the greengrocers, I met an elderly man who’d ‘spent the last week in bed’. He shook his head at me as he fumbled for the word ‘avocado’. The Platonic Form of an avocado floated in his mind—‘Rough, green…’—but the abstraction stayed maddeningly out of reach. ‘Kiwi!’ I guess.
He shook his head again, this time at the world around him. ‘What do you make of it, bud? What a mess we’re in.’ I made some optimistic comment like, ‘We’ve survived worse’ and I was surprised by his abrupt reversal: ‘Oh yes, my man,’ he said with feeling. ‘Believe me, I’ve survived worse!’
This man was probably born the wrong side of the Second World War and remembers well the food shortages and fuel shortages. I found out today that there was a timber shortage in the 1960s and the door frames of our apartment were built with metal. The strength of this survivor’s feeling as he shopped for avocados and groped for words gave me a glimpse of our privilege.
The sun shone and we are surrounded by a rainbow of colours: striped pumpkins and carmine tomatoes, tricolour peppers and blanched potatoes, pale celery and deepest broccoli, gaudy bananas and russet apples, wine dark berries and chestnut mushrooms, blonde figs and treacle dates. The shop manager fills the man’s bags with colour and loads them up onto his mobility scooter.
‘Oh yes,’ the man chuckles to himself, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t we been through worse?’
At work, I’ve been covering a conference about big data in agriculture. One of the conference organisers, the environmental scientist Dr Andy Jarvis, made this comment about the pandemic:
We were all expecting a food system collapse—people were panic buying and didn’t have confidence in the food system and in our farmers. But the farming community has worked incredibly hard, the food system has stood up, and we’ve all remained well-nourished through this crisis. A big thank you to all the farmers.
Next time you’re in your local greengrocers, look around you at the colours on display. Look more closely and see the fingerprints of the farm workers who planted the seeds, the soil, light and water that grew the plant, and the robust food system that brought these colours to your high street.
Buy the freshest food you can, make something delicious and swallow the rainbow.
My local climbing centre, The Project in Poole, is back open—huzzah! There’s only one snag in the celebrations: because of the pandemic, they’re running at an unsustainable loss. Hm.
Government Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they can ‘only’ have 155 people climbing in the centre at any one time. Which would be totally fine, but climbing is dangerous enough as it is without adding a high risk of catching and spreading the virus.
Even before Covid-19, the capacity of the centre was ‘only’ around 150 people. I’ve been there when there’s been about 100 people fighting for wall space and I can tell you it is FULL. To be precise: it’s an elbows-out jostling bunfight. Not what you want in a global pandemic.
So, after boggling their minds at the fanciful government guidelines, the team running the centre got together and decided that 60 climbers could sensibly enjoy the walls while preserving a safe distance from others. 60—that’s less than half the government figure!
But this means that The Project is running at about 60 percent of their usual business—poof—there goes their profit margin.
So why are they open at all? The manager shrugs: ‘Well, at least we’re all back climbing, aren’t we?’ And he’s goddamn right: there aren’t many other places still open for people to go and let off steam (and, in my case, dislocate their shoulders).
It made me wonder: how many thousands of small, community-minded businesses like The Project are running at a loss simply because the fabric of society is built on small businesses with small profit margins?
Unless we speak to the people running our favourite places, we might not realise what’s really going on because, superficially, ‘we’re all back climbing again’. But that’s plaster work over foundational cracks.
We need these places more than ever; let’s back them more than ever.
In his book There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee bemoans the ironically glacial pace of international action on climate change:
We have had decades of warning about climate change. But we have wasted that time through our denial, first of the problem itself and then of the nature of the solution that is required, and through the unspeakably clumsy way in which we inch towards the kind of global agreement that might actually help. In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on every challenge giving us so much warning. We’d better practise our global governance because we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change on a far shorter timescale.
This was a funny thing to read in the middle of a global pandemic because it made me reflect that, for the most part, humans are actually doing okay this time around.
Yes, nearly a million people have died from Covid-19. That’s awful. Perhaps millions more will die in the months and years to come. That’s also awful.
But the response, which is what Berners-Lee is talking about, has been rapid, global and, most importantly, cooperative. Given the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—there has been a surprising shortage of denial, clumsiness and ‘inching’.
Of course we can all point to individuals who dig sandpits of denial, others to whom clumsiness is a kind of elegance, and still more whose rulers are still dreamily scored with Imperial Inches.
But if we ignore the bombast of our elected politicians… What have we seen?
For all the post-truth opprobrium aimed at the ‘so-called experts’, the response to Covid-19 from the scientific community has been instantly impressive. To take vaccines alone, there are 321 candidates in development, with 39 already going through clinical trials. A process that usually takes years is being compressed into months—despite the difficulties of social distancing in a laboratory. Well done science.
Last year, the number of worldwide deaths from AIDS fell to its lowest level since 1993—and incidence of the disease is at its lowest since the epidemic began. (Wait, you’ll see how this is relevant in a second.) The UN estimates that the total amount of money needed for the global response to an AIDS epidemic that will kill another 600,000 people in 2020 is only £22bn. (Okay, here we go.) By July—i.e. only four months into their response to Covid-19—the UK government (alone) had spent £15bn on PPE (alone) for NHS staff (alone). That gives us some idea of the scale of our response to Covid-19.
Two points arising from these three observations:
The AIDS epidemic is much worse than you think and still horribly underfunded. In the last thirty years, we’ve lost 32,000,000 lives to the disease—that’s the population of Australia and Denmark put together. An even larger number are living with AIDS today.
No matter how shit Covid-19 is and no matter how much shitter things get, I don’t think humans should beat themselves up about their response. We can—and we will—do more, but maybe we’re already doing okay.
Finally, this isn’t to undermine Berners-Lee’s point about climate change. Note that he says ‘we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change’. Covid-19 is far from being intangible: as I’ve pointed out, human beings are very good at dealing with imminent threats to life.
Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes. The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.
Sadly, the brain is nigh-on helpless when faced with the inexorable logic of generational climate change. But perhaps Covid-19 is helping us rewire our Neanderthal instincts, showing us how, when the chips are down, we can do this rapid, global cooperation kind of thing.
For most of us, Covid-19 has radically shifted our day-to-day context: our work environment, social milieu, shopping and even our sleeping habits.
I think the most striking change for me has been stability.
I’ve spent the 74 nights of lockdown in Bournemouth. I haven’t stayed in one place for anywhere even close to 74 nights since my records began in July 2015. For those of you (hi) who love the stats, these are my longest sojourns over the past five years:
2019: 22 nights (Bristol)
2018: 23 nights (Bristol)
2017: 23 nights (Peckham)
2016: 27 nights (Edinburgh Festival)
20 July-December 2015: 25 (New Cross)
At least once every four weeks for the last five years I have been on the move, travelling across the country for work or to visit friends, or further afield on overland adventures.
Without lockdown, I don’t think I ever would have realised how much I travel—and the possible advantages of stability.
With a rocksteady context, I’ve been able to build consistent habits like never before. With no interruptions to my developing routines, I’ve seen improvements in both my work and rest.
So, before we rush headlong out of lockdown, I think it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves a few other questions about how our lives have changed and what we might be able to salvage for the future.
52 questions to answer before leaving lockdown
Readers of this newsletter come from all over the world, from extremes of both the World Clock and the Covid-19 infection scale.
It seems like the UK is slowly shaking itself off and starting to pick up old habits. But perhaps you are only now battening down the hatches, perhaps you have already returned to some semblance of work and play.
Wherever you find yourself, the idea of these questions is to build up a picture of your life under lockdown, to reflect on how your context has moulded your behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, to ponder on what and how you would change for the future.
I’ve split the 52 questions into 9 sections:
I’m not going to even suggest that you sharpen your pencils and set aside three hours; this isn’t an exam. Feel free to let the questions wash over you as you read, and simply notice what bubbles to the surface.
How do you start your day? List the first ten things that you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
How do you end your day? List the last ten things you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
Think about a typical day in lockdown. What are you doing regularly now that you wouldn’t have done before Covid-19? What old habits have fallen away?
Is there anything you miss from your old life? Why do you miss these things?
What activities have been most important to your mental health over the past three months? Have these become habits? Would you keep them or adapt them?
Where have you been spending most of your time?
Name at least three things that you appreciate about where you’ve been staying.
Think about your best habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it better supports your best habits?
Think about your worst habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it inhibits your worst habits?
What places outside your home have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
How have your travel habits changed? What modes of transport are you using now? Has this made your life better or worse?
How’s your physical health? How do you feel in your body?
How’s your mental health? How do you feel in your mind?
How have you been keeping fit? How would you change your exercise if you could magically do anything, with anyone?
How are your sleep patterns? Better or worse? Earlier or later? Regular or irregular? Are you napping? Dreaming?
Have your eating habits changed at all? What’s your diet like? Are you eating more, less or the same? Where are you when you eat? What are you doing while eating? What food has been particularly important you over the past three months?
How’s your oral hygiene?
How have your relationships with others changed?
Have you formed any new friendships? Or rekindled old friendships?
Have you been using any new forms of communication? Would you keep them or adapt them to the new context?
How has your relationship to yourself changed?
Who are you speaking to the most? Who has been particularly important for your mental health over the last three months?
Who have you been neglecting?
Is there anyone—you don’t have to know them personally—that you’d like to say thank you to? Or say sorry to?
How has work changed for you over the past three months? Are you working more, less or the same?
How are your working days organised now? How is that different to before?
Has anything changed at work, either in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it? If yes: do you want to keep, adapt or develop these changes?
What part of your work or business has disappeared? Do you want or need it back?
What is important or essential about your work? Can you uncover or emphasise these elements in the future?
Are there any educational opportunities you’d like to arm yourself with for the future?
What might your working future be like? In a disaster scenario? And in a perfect world? What can you do to start making those futures a reality?
How have your shopping habits changed?
Have you bought more or less than you used to? If that’s a hard question to answer, look at the raw numbers: have you spent more or less?
Can you remember how you used to shop and spend money? Would you like to go back to those days? Would you rather keep or adapt your new shopping habits?
What possessions have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
Are there any possessions that you thought were essential, but haven’t even thought of using since lockdown?
What clothes have you been wearing most?
Do you feel more or less a part of society?
What’s most important for the healthy running of our society? What’s the significance of being a citizen in our society? What role does government, both local and national, have to play in our society? How would you like to participate?
If you could change one thing about our society, what would that be? Could you take one small step today to help make that change a reality?
What have you learned about your neighbours? About your local area? Who are the key workers for you? What are the most important businesses?
What’s the first thing you’d do if you were allowed to travel and meet people freely?
What’s important to you this coming summer or winter? What are your three highest priorities?
What are you most worried about as you emerge from lockdown?
Think about how you felt as the news filtered in about the deaths in China, the arrival of Covid-19 in your country and the announcement of lockdown measures. How did your past self feel about all this uncertainty at the time? How do you feel towards your past self now? How do you think your future self will handle future uncertainty?
What areas of life do you think you’re handling well during lockdown?
What do you think you could have done better? How? Can you think of anyone who you thought managed those problems particularly well? What could you learn from them? If you’re not sure: ask them.
Do you feel more or less resilient and ready for the future? No matter what your answer: why do you think you feel this way? What steps could you take to feel more sure-footed?
What have you noticed about the changing seasons? The weather, the trees, the birds, the plants? The smells, the sounds, the colours, the growth?
If you look after household pets or plants: what have you noticed about their lives during lockdown?
What scents have been particularly important to you during lockdown? What sights? What sounds? What tastes? What other sensations?
What music, art and literature has been particularly important to you during lockdown? Why?
Don’t panic, I’m not really going to bore you with my laborious answers to all 52. But I will finish the one I started to answer at the top, about the changes in my immediate environment.
As well as spending 74 consecutive nights in one place, I’ve also taken an equally unheard of zero train journeys.
In the 10 weeks prior to lockdown I took 21 rail journeys, spending a little over £40 and 5 hours on trains every week.
This is remarkably consistent with my travel habits across the whole of 2019, when I took 2.5 journeys and spent £40 on trains for every week I was in the UK.
Nice stats, but what have I learned?
My train travel is a change of context. The way I travel is not like commuting from one familiar context to another; it’s more disruptive than I thought.
Changing context so frequently is harmful to my habits, which thrive in stability. For example: a late train back from London interrupts my evening routine. Interrupted evening habits means worse sleep, which means a less productive morning and a drop in my sense of wellbeing.
I have a new respect for habits. My work habits are the rockbed of my productivity, as my health and fitness habits are of my wellbeing.
Therefore I should be more careful about how and when I travel, particularly when I can’t or don’t want to take a break.
The case for creative stability
There are quite a few things I wouldn’t change about my lockdown life and travelling less frequently is one.
Without long train journeys to disrupt my daily and weekly routines, my second self does all the heavy lifting: automatically preparing for work, systematically feeding, clothing and watering myself, habitually letting my fingers fly over the keyboard for hours on end.
In turn, this easy automation of the second self gives time and space for my executive self to do what he does best: creative direction.
As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890):
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.
With little variation in my 24 hours, a surprising amount of writing work has been possible. Knowing now the benefits of creative stability, I will think twice about how and when I surrender the environment in which my second self thrives best.
Of course, I’ll still travel—if only to slow down time a little. Without changes in context, the days blur into each other and our perception of time condenses forgettably.
Routine might make us more productive and more content, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for great stories!
I know that I’ve been very lucky with my lockdown so far, but I hope that you’ve also discovered something interesting about your daily life.
I also hope you’ve found these questions worthwhile and have enjoyed taking a moment to think about where we are now. I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share any of your findings.
Finally, if you know anyone who might also enjoy these questions, feel free to share the post. Thanks!
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)
Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.
Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.
The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.
We are all antifragile
Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.
Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.
In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.
Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.
This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.
It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.
Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.
Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’
‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.
Remind you of any recent events?
This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.
The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.
But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.
Change your environment, change your behaviour
Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.
Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.
The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.
For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.
But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.
All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.
As NEF put it:
When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.
Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.
Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.
A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.
So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.
Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.
I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.
This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.
I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.
But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?
We don’t want ‘normal’
Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.
It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.
But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.
Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.
My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.
When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.
But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.
It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.
So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.
(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)
The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.
Smug as fuck.
We’ve. Got. Time.
It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.
I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.
But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.
As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.
It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.
My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.
Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.
Over to us
Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.
Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?
My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.
This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.
I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.
Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.
Last weekend I spent four, five, six, seven hours a day rambling in the Peak District. It’s the perfect isolation activity. Solitary, wondrous: an easy way to free yourself from the invisible bonds that are tying you down.
Staggering down from Bamford Moor, I stumbled into a shady grove of stripped oaks, clad in living moss. I climbed over a crumbled drystone wall and sat with my back to the rocks and listened carefully for the sound of carbon-based lifeforms.
Back in Bournemouth, I’ve been breaking the isolation with walks along the seafront, watching the ceaseless, sleepless tide, in-out, ti-de.
I always make sure to ramble through the copse that stands on the clifftops and, invariably, my footsteps slow and I’m drawn upwards, climbing up through the stepladder branches that spiral a pine or holm oak.
My companion on these climbs is Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide:
Trees anchor us in nature’s cycle; lining our pavements and filling our parks, they remind us of another kind of time-keeping, a vegetable clock that keeps ticking to an alternative rhythm.
In this strange alternative reality, trees are a comfort. All is not rosie in the garden: trees wrestle with their own diseases, of course, but they are a warm embrace when another warm embrace could be infectious.
The awakening buds and the loud birdsong remind us that life is still growing strong. It’s easy to spend my time in front of screens, refreshing, counting time until recovery. But the trees give me a reason to trust in time.
Space and time
Are not the mathematics that your will
Imposes, but a green calendar
Your heart observes
~ R.S. Thomas, Green Categories
I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that there’s a tree’s roots growing underneath me and that its branches reach up above me. That some people believe me and some people love me.
My last night in the Peak District was fresh and bright. I strode away from the acid lights of the youth hostel, found a sheep-cropped clearing, and looked up. The milky clouds rushed overhead, pulling back like a curtain on a light show for the rapture.
Seeing more stars than I had done for a long time, I stretched my power of imagination and learned a few nice things.
We are all poorer for our light pollution. The night sky outdoes any of our tawdry displays — but only when you can see the constellations that come alive in the dark. This is a map of the UK at night, with light pollution marked in colour from green through to yellow and red in our cities. Aim for the blackness: the Dark Sky Reserves.
The famous Plough is actually a small part — an asterism — of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in the darkness. In most of our skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
I connected the dots and found Leo for the first time. Leo is not a difficult beast to conjure, but if you don’t know where to look… He follows the Plough in the sky, facing the wrong way, with a question mark head and an isosceles rump. It’s really more spectacular than I make it sound.
In times like these, we can seek refuge in the infinite universe and feel the love come down.