Other mammals, whether dogs, great apes or unicorns, walk on four legs and so have a clear passage for faeces, once the tail is raised to attention. To keep ourselves clean, we must wipe.
Note that I don’t say ‘we must wipe with toilet paper’.
Romans used a sponge on the end of a stick. Jews used small pebbles or the smooth edges of broken pottery. French satirist François Rabelais recommends the neck of a well-downed goose.
We have seventh century China to blame for today’s proliferation of toilet papers: one-ply, two-ply, six-ply, quilted, perfumed, perforated, embossed and decorated with the colours of your football team.
83 million rolls of the stuff are produced globally every day, a daily consumption of 27,000 trees to feed our voracious appetite for smearing shit onto paper that we then flush into our rivers and oceans.
NOTE: Oh yeah, this piece might get a bit gross for some of you. Get over it.
Not Saving the Planet
A lot of people, when they hear about my experiments in positive constraints, come to the understandable, but incorrect, conclusion that I’m worried about saving the planet, environmentalism or being green. I’m not.
It’s not that I couldn’t give a crap (sorry) about these things, but I believe that we can only change the world by changing ourselves.
It’s impossible for me to comprehend my miniscule contribution to the fate of the planet: I am one of seven billion. What I can understand, measure and describe, however, is the individual impact on my life of changes to my personal behaviour.
So the main reason for adopting a positive constraint like No Toilet Paper is not the saving of paper, trees and money, but Ockham’s Razor.
Ockham’s Razor was the first philosophical principle I ever came across, aged about 14, and is the number one reason why, 19 years later, I’m still such an insufferable intellectual snob. (Hey, at least I didn’t use its Latin name, lex parsimoniae.)
The principle has made a celebrity out of fourteenth century theologian William of Ockham (a village in Surrey), but the idea is as old as the hills: the simplest explanation or the simplest solution is most likely to be the best.
If I can explain why the sun appears to rise every morning with basic astronomical physics, then I probably don’t need to invoke the Egytpian Sun God Ra and his star-pulling chariot. Equally, if I can design a perfectly good dining table with four legs, then it’s probably superfluous to add a fifth (Rube Goldberg machines are a delightful exception to this rule).
It follows, therefore, that if I can live without it, then why the hell would I ever bother using toilet paper?
No Toilet Paper: The Principle
Luckily, the rest of the world isn’t quite as insane as Europe, the US and Australia. Large areas of the globe are already on a No Toilet Paper regimen.
Unfortunately, Western behaviours are currently “on trend” and the utterly pointless behaviour of scraping around your anus with a patch of wood pulp is spreading.
Large swathes of the Muslim and Hindu world still use water to clean themselves after defecating. The methods vary, but the principle is the same. I’ll illustrate it with a little quiz.
You’re out fixing a new chain on your bicycle or digging up your new veg patch. You finish the job (Well done!) and go inside for dinner. You notice that your hands are covered in oil and grease or mud and worms. Do you:
a) Wash your hands with soap and water?
b) Smear the dirt around with a scrap of paper?
Answers on a postcard to the usual address.
No Toilet Paper: The Methods
Hopefully we’ve established that you’d be mad to continue using toilet paper. But, given our awkward self-befouling human anatomy, how exactly should we clean ourselves?
In the course of my experimentation over the last two weeks, I’ve come across several different options. Here they are, in order of increasing complexity:
Do nothing. I don’t quite mean that, of course, but often I’m remarkably clean and have no need to do anything special. After a few days using other methods, you’ll get a feeling for whether you need to clean more thoroughly or not. WARNING: This does depend on your diet. Since my experimentation with No Meat, I’ve noticed that I’m visiting the toilet more often (that’s fibre for you) and need to clean more thoroughly. Previously, when I was eating a simple meat and beans diet, I was a steady once-a-day man, regular as clockwork. Because I’d go in the morning, I could easily wash myself in the shower, no toilet paper required.
Use your hand. Assuming you’re not having any problems with sticky poo (check your diet), you might be surprised to find that there’s never really much there to clear away. Use only one hand and make sure you wash with good soap (and a nail brush if that’s necessary).
Use a wet flannel. This was suggested by one of my friends. She keeps three flannels in her room and uses them in rotation throughout the day to clean herself. At the end of the day, she boils them all in a pan of water to kill any residual germs. The only downside is you’ll have to carry a flannel with you when you go out.
Use a bowl and pitcher. This is an absolute classic all across the Arab world. To be honest, I find it a little fiddly, but the technique is just to splash yourself with water. Again, this is more annoying if you’re not at home. You could carry a dedicated bottle of arse-water.
Install a bidet shower, ‘health tap’ or a purpose-built toilet. These are all ways of using water pressure to hose yourself down. Options include a basic shower head, a trigger hose or a specially designed toilet. The toilets are particularly good fun, with a little nozzle in the centre of the bowl firing water straight up your anus. Complex, expensive and slightly unnecessary.
Benefits to No Toilet Paper
Stop worrying about public toilet paper provision. (Or at home either.)
Feel cleaner after washing compared to smearing.
Be more ape and feel at home in the great outdoors.
Stake out your independence from the unnecessary comforts of modernity.
Save money. You probably spend about £20-30 a year on toilet paper. It’s one less thing to remember in the shop too.
Stop culling your share of those 27,000 trees per day.
Be more rational and treat Ockham’s Razor with the respect it deserves instead of mindlessly following stupid inherited cultural habits.
Are there any downsides to living without toilet paper? I guess that some people might think I’m gross, but I stopped giving a shit about that a long time ago.
Thanks for reading. I hope it inspires you to look at your life and your habits and to peer round the curtain at what’s really going on. If you’d like to stay in touch, please join my mailing list.
If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.
My Old Diet: Meat and Beans
For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.
Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.
This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.
This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:
What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.
Why No Meat?
So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.
Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.
Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.
Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.
Cowspiracy is unambiguous:
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.
But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.
At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.
This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?
The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!
Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:
All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.
In the scramble, I put:
Red onion (fried)
Black beans (boiled)
Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:
I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.
For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.
Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!
Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.
One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:
Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.
If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:
24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.
Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).
Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments
Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.
Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?
As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:
I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.
Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.
Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?
No, these are not the lyrics to the latest chart-topping teenybopper execration. They are instead the chimp-like sounds of me showering, at least since I started my most recent experiment in positive constraints: No Hot Showers.
A positive constraint is a restriction on your behaviour that you’ve freely chosen. They’re really common in art and music (a picture frame or time signature is a positive constraint), any sports and games (the ban on using your hands in football is a positive constraint) and religion (the Sabbath, Lent or Ramadan are all dedicated to exercising positive constraint).
What I’m trying to do is bring the art of positive constraints into our everyday lifestyles, through experiments in everything from No Aeroplanes and No English, to No Supermarkets and No Walking.
Too often we flounder around in the rut of our unexamined habits, without asking why we travel by plane or shop at supermarkets. Positive constraints is the method through which we can find, almost always, a better way of doing things.
For the next three months, I’ll be publishing regular experiments in positive constraints right here. Among many others, I’ll be exploring life without swearing, handshakes, meat – and pants.
I’m also writing a book that goes into much more detail on a wide range of positive constraints, examining the psychology of experiential and behavioural change. If you want to be first to hear news of the book, then please sign up to my mailing list.
Designing the No Hot Showers Experiment
Designing a new experiment in positive constraints is easy. You just think of something that you do, and then don’t.
Every morning, for example, I have a nice hot shower. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why humans wake up in the morning feeling unclean – my hair looks like I’ve been sleeping under a hedge and somehow my skin feels simultaneously dry and oily – but there it is. The morning is unthinkable until I’ve had my ablutions: a five minute hot shower.
So that’s what I do. Applying the methodology of positive constraints, then, I should now explore what I don’t. I could have gone the whole hog and experimented with No Showers At All, but I think my housemates would have reported me to Environmental Health.
Instead, last week, I started taking No Hot Showers.
Why No Hot Showers?
When you’re experimenting, it’s important not to assume too much about your results. Before I started No Hot Showers, though, I knew two things. No Hot Showers would:
Wake me up. Like a punch to the face.
Save on heating bills.
I’m definitely right about #1, but #2 will probably be too small to measure, particularly as I live with 7 other people, all of whom take hot showers, some luxuriantly so.
Once I’d started the experiment, though, I learnt a whole lot more about the benefits of No Hot Showers, from the mildly useful to the genuinely life-enhancing.
Because it’s so freaking cold, you’ll tend not to spend so long in the shower, saving water and, in some small way, the entire planetary biosphere. Maybe.
It’ll stimulate and improve blood circulation and your cardiovascular system. Your heart will explode, in other words, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Washing your hair in cold water will make it all glossy and shiny. Hot water dries and frazzles.
Cold water is kinder to your skin, too. I have occasional eczema and I’ve noticed an improvement since switching to cold water.
Cold water doesn’t create steam, so you’ll still be able to see yourself shivering in the bathroom mirror afterwards.
This is more anecdotal, but cold water seems to make my eyes a more intense blue. I speculate that this is down to pupil constriction after the adrenalin rush of the cold.
Cold showers will increase testosterone production in men, leading to increased energy and strength, as well as sex-drive.
Hot water is deadly to men’s sperm; for men, a hot bath is a contraceptive. Cold water will help keep your sperm plentiful and healthy.
You don’t have to worry about fiddling with the taps to get the water temperature just right.
It doesn’t matter if your early-rising housemates have used up all the hot water. Similarly, you can feel good about not using it up for them.
Cold water immersion becomes a habit, something that you get used to. By practising for ten minutes every day, my body has no problem jumping into the chilly British sea water. I can play in the waves without shivering or wishing I was anywhere else. And that’s FUN.
Cold water stimulates your immune system, particularly if you take a cold shower after exercise. That transition from hot to cold does wonders.
Cold showers are an effective treatment for depression.
Really cold showers that make you shiver can help you lose fat and build lean muscle.
Cold showers are miserable! Of course they are. Who would be foolish enough to choose a cold shower when hot is on offer? Well, the answer to that question is the same people who choose the difficult path in life, the people who embrace challenges and, through those difficulties and challenges, accomplish great things. There is no scientific evidence for this, but cold showers do make me feel more resilient and determined to overcome life’s vicissitudes.
Cold showers are great! Yes they are. I enjoy the adrenalin rush of icy water on my face. Hot showers are comforting, good for when you want to fall asleep on the sofa, but cold showers are like a charge of lightning down your spine. I feel electrified.
Are there any down sides to No Hot Showers? As far as I can tell, the only down side is the absence of long hot showers.
Quite apart from the fact that hot showers are enjoyable, the steam opens up your pores and relaxes your muscles. Dilly-dallying in the shower can also be a moment of meditation and the unfocussed attention that leads to good ideas.
However, a shower is not the only way of accessing these states – and I never said hot baths were off the agenda!
How to Take a Cold Shower
Turn on the cold tap. Full.
Don’t turn on any other taps.
You’ll also need to take off all your clothes (wet suits not allowed) and position yourself under the shower head. If you’ve got the water temperature right (see #1 and #2 above), then there’s no comfortable way of doing this.
You could start by dousing your long-suffering feet and legs, before gingerly moving the shower head the rest of your body. At some point, though, you’re going to have to duck your head under and your head is not going to like this. Personally, I love the gasping shock of walking straight into the cold stream, but do it your way.
How long you stay in depends on what you want to get out of your morning shower. If you just want to wash and wake up, then a couple of minutes is ample. If you want all the possible health benefits listed above, then you’ll need a minimum of 5 minutes, 10 to be on the safe side.
I would add: do not attempt to judge this time yourself. In a cold shower, 5 seconds feels like 5 years. I take a countdown timer into the bathroom with me and don’t leave until the beeps go off.
If you want extreme cold exposure, then you’ll need more like half an hour, but do more research before diving into Andy Murray’s ice bath.
Medical Time Out: Cold water can be a shock to the system. A cold shower probably won’t kill you, but the shock of jumping into a glacial lake might do. Don’t be an idiot. Consult your physician if you have any concerns. If you’re worried about hypothermia, then pinch your thumb and little finger tips together. If you can’t do this, then your extremities have gone numb. Get out now before you die.
But, wait – there’s more!
One of the great things about positive constraints is that there’s always more. The “positive” in positive constraints refers to your agency in your decision to restrict your behaviour.
I’m not being forced to take a cold shower and I’m not merely submitting to the necessary evil of cold showers for such and such a health reason; I’m actively choosing cold showers for their own sake.
And this feeling of having control over your life is well-correlated with happiness. By choosing and living a positive constraint, I am training for happiness.
I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.
Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)
It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.
And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)
But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.
Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.
Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps
Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?
1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potato from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.
2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgivable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?
3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.
Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.
4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?
5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilence until you get to your destination.
Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.
Why oh why oh why?
Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.
So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.
No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.
We are cursed; a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.
The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.
But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food that litters the highways and byways of Britain. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.
Our generation faces a unique series of ecological challenges, from climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, to how we can feed the world and leverage bio-technology without damaging the planet’s fragile ecosystem. But the ecological transformations necessary to answer these challenges are impossible without a corresponding social transformation in the way we fuel our cars, grow our crops and organise ourselves. As Ulrich Brand, professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna, says, we need nothing less than the “ecological modernisation of capitalism”.
Climate Change and Geo-Engineering
The People’s Climate March in September showed that, as activist Mona Bricke says, “we have reached a tipping point of movements”. She singles out 350.org as a unifying movement established to connect with the leaders who handle climate change. “In Copenhagen,” she says, “we got the impression that things were at a stand still and we knew we had to go back home and fight climate change at home.”
Mona’s home is Germany, from where she reports some interesting contradictions. The state of Brandenburg, for example, has transitioned to using 100% renewable energy for its citizens. All well and good, but they still mine and export coal to other communities. Mona tells us that, earlier this year, an eight kilometre line of activists stopped the huge coal mining caterpillars from working. “Little people stopped them,” she says, with obvious delight.
But there is trouble ahead. “You have a problem if you try to solve all problems,” Mona warns. For instance, the proposal of gas fracking as an alternative to coal mining. “We have to say no to that,” she insists. “The alternative to coal can by no means be fracking and it cannot be nuclear power either.” To illustrate the problem, Mona describes how, in the UK, activists against coal mining have turned to oppose fracking – while more coal than ever before is being used in the power stations. “We can’t move from one opposition to another,” Mona says. “We need to see the big picture.” It is inevitable, in the transition to renewable energy, that we will need to rely on some temporary gas power stations, she suggests.
Pat Mooney, a leading expert on technology and the environment and Elevate guest in 2009 and 2012, introduces us to geo-engineering, temporary climate hacks to alleviate the effects of climate change until such a time as the problem can be dealt with more permanently. Geo-engineering might seem like a reasonable strategy, given the real prospect of runaway global warming, but some of the proposals are extreme: blocking sunlight from reaching the earth by pumping sulphites into the air like an artificial volcano, for example. “Solar Radiation Management” proposals like this will, it is hoped, buy time to develop the technology to implement other schemes that capture carbon and bury it in the ground somewhere.
Pat describes these proposals as “two dreams” that allow companies to say “we don’t need to do anything else, we don’t need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions because we have these answers”. Unfortunately for those people who want “business as usual”, I’m sure you don’t need Pat Mooney to tell you that the idea of setting off artificial volcanoes “is simply crazy”. “The wealthiest countries,” he explains, “will make the decisions about how they will disperse these gasses into the stratosphere to block the sunlight.” As usual when there is a global price to pay, technical studies show that this kind of geo-engineering could be “devastating” to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and wreck havoc with the monsoon in south Asia.
“In 2012, we were successful in getting a moratorium against all forms of geo-engineering,” Pat says. Will geo-engineering still happen? Well, according to Pat, yes. “Even though the UN moratorium is in place, the United States isn’t a part of it itself,” he says. “And we know that research is going on anyway in places like Russia and China,” he adds. Pat foresees the situation becoming so desperate over the coming years that we’ll reach the point where “governments will say they have no choice but to deploy geo-engineering and we’ll just have to hope for the best”.
Pat points out that the pressure on governments from the big energy companies is huge. “The fossil fuel companies have fifty-five trillion dollars worth of infrastructure they want to protect,” he says. “They’ve got twenty-one trillion dollars worth of assets in the ground and they will do anything in their power to exploit that fossil fuel resource.” They’re not going to let governments end the party. “For them, it’s simple enough to say we’ll use solar radiation management to delay the effects,” Pat says, “and then we’ll find a way to bury the stuff eventually.”
Into a sickened silence, we contemplate the sacrifices we all must make so that fossil fuel profits can go on unhindered. “The only way to prevent this,” Josef Obermoser suggests, “is a huge global movement that is able to create so much pressure that this is not going to happen.” “Exactly,” Pat agrees. “If there isn’t a huge public debate about it soon, then they will continue. It will be China, Russia and the United States, probably together, going ahead with Solar Radiation Management.”
Synthetic biology was initially developed as companies tried to find alternative ways of producing bio-fuels, Pat says, to “solve the problem of stealing food from people to feed their cars”. Now, however, the synthetic biology companies have moved away from bio-fuels and are creating flavour and fragrance crops that they can brew in a vat. “It threatens the livelihood of about a hundred million farmers right now,” Pat warns. “Crops like vanilla from Madagascar and saffron from Iran are all now being developed to be grown from vats rather than in the field.”
Synthetic biology is not like genetic modification, but instead builds and replicates DNA precisely, to make exactly what is needed or wanted in the marketplace. The proof of principle was established in 2010, when J. Craig Venter was able to recreate an entirely artificial self-replicating life form. “It really is a manipulation of life at its most fundamental levels,” Pat says, “and much more pervasive than genetic modification.”
As with geo-engineering, there is an international movement to regulate synthetic biology. “Last week in Korea,” Pat tells us, “the UN Commission on Biodiversity met, 194 countries. Almost all of them came out calling for a moratorium on synthetic biology until it can be properly regulated.” Almost all of them; the moratorium was blocked by the European Union and Canada. “They have agreed to establish a regulatory system to try to control synthetic biology at the national level at least.”
Yeah, but how close are we to actually having these synthetic crops in our food chain? “You’ll be able to buy so-called natural vanilla which has been brewed in a vat from Switzerland sometime later this year or early next year,” Pat says. Oh. Synthetic biology companies are finding it difficult to scale up production, so they’re concentrating on small, expensive products like vanilla and saffron; flavours, fragrances and cosmetics. “They’re not taking over coffee or palm oil at this stage,” Pat says, “but they may well soon.”
“Oof,” Josef sighs, shifting in his chair. “Very scary.” Pat laughs, leaning into the webcam. “I’m sorry to be saying only terrible things!” he replies. “Both geo-engineering at the maximum level and then synthetic biology almost at the nano scale.” But Pat is not a doom-monger. “We are looking for solutions as well,” he says. “The United Nations is paying attention.” Pat’s organisation, the ETC Group, have made a proposal to the UN, accepted by many governments, to establish capacity for technology assessment. This will give governments a systematic way to track these new technologies and hopefully have a public debate about them “before they’re forced down our throats or onto our faces or into our clothing”.
It would be easy to characterise Pat as a Luddite, a man who hates all new technology and is determined to stop its progress. That would be a gross misrepresentation; Pat is highly respectful of technology. Indeed, his socio-ecological concerns about technology are products of his great respect for its power. “People are becoming aware that technology is an extraordinarily powerful engine that’s driving a lot of social decisions,” he says. “We need to get control of those social decisions ourselves again.” He reminds us that we don’t have to blindly accept everything corporations, laboratories and human ingenuity can create. Pat wants us to retain control over the technologies we choose for our societies, “making sure the good ones go forward and the bad ones don’t”.
GMO and TTIP
The battle for control over the use of technology is unrelenting. There is currently a world-wide UN moratorium on the use of the so-called “terminator” seed, a genetically modified organism that dies at harvest time, so that farmers can’t store the seed for the next year. “They can sell the commodity,” Pat says, “so you can still make wheat or rice from it, but farmers will have to go back and buy seed again from the company.” As Josef says, “it’s a self-destructing life form”.
This “terminator” seed is completely banned in Brazil and even Monsanto, one of the world’s leading GMO producers, have publicly vowed not to pursue its use. And yet… “We’re expecting that they will overturn the ban that exists in Brazil against terminator sometime within the next few months.” The legislative bills are already with the Brazilian Congress, delayed only by the Presidential Elections. “Twelve thousand years of farmers being able to save their own seeds will end,” Pat says and urges us to join the campaign, supported by the Catholic church, against the lifting of the ban. “Write to the President of Brazil saying that we don’t want this legislation,” he says. “It’s not a lost battle.”
Irmi Salzer, a member of La Via Campesina and an organic farmer, has more bad news, however. She reports that, although Austria had previously promised they would not allow GMO crops, “now they’re hedging their bets before the resistance gets too big”. She is worried that the decade-long fight against GMO might have to get more active. “The free trade agreement, TTIP, will overturn all the victories we’ve won,” she says. “It’s a Trojan Horse. This new agreement will be an opportunity to force through things that people have been trying to do for years.” Still under negotiation, TTIP could result in EU countries aligning their GMO and bio-technology regulations and protections with current, and more lax, US law.
Irmi shows us one crucial difference between current EU and US law, which TTIP could overturn, with potentially catastrophic consequences. In the EU, since an agreement on sustainable ecological protection in 1992, new technologies have to be proved safe before deployment: the burden of proof is on the companies developing and selling the technology. In the US, however, this principle is considered irrational and hysterical. “They want the opposite,” Irmi says, “that the opponents to a technology have to prove it is dangerous.” According to Irmi, TTIP will make the corporate overthrow of the long-standing EU ecological agreement much easier.
To make matters worse, democratic resistance to TTIP is proving difficult. Since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, citizens of the EU are able to propose legislation if they can find support from at least one million citizens from at least four different member countries. This is called the “European Citizens’ Initiative” and is one of the very few examples of legislation that promotes direct democracy anywhere in the EU. Unfortunately, it cannot be used to stop the TTIP negotiations because there is no legal agreement yet to challenge with a popular legislative proposal! This leaves us in a Kafkaesque situation where, as Irmi says, “negotiations have to be concluded first, before any protests can start”. In other words, legal objections can only be lodged by citizens of the EU after TTIP has been signed into law. The Self-Organised European Citizens Initiative Against TTIP and CETA has already gathered well over one million signatories, from all over the EU. It should be clear to the governments pursuing TTIP that popular opposition is massive, loud and indignant; but we are legally powerless to stop the secretive negotiations.
We can see and hear big business building this Trojan Horse, but only when it has been dragged inside the city walls can we attempt to destroy it.
In search of good news, Irmi turns to discuss La Via Campesina, a transglobal organisation that stands up for peasant farmers all over the world. It’s difficult to say quite how many farmers are represented because some countries keep no registers, but La Via Campesina estimate up to two hundred million people.
La Via Campesina coined the term “food sovereignty”, the right to produce your own food on your own land. The concept is in direct opposition to the global corporations and market institutions who currently dominate our food supply. “We see ourselves as part of a movement that wants to bring about social change,” Irmi says. La Via Campesina is a global solidarity movement, not just about the local environment and the “Buen Vivir”, the good life. They campaign for access to land, seed variety and local democratisation of the food supply. Not unreasonably, Irmi believes that it is the people who actually grow the food that lands on your plate who should be the ones negotiating any free trade agreements, not global corporations locked away in fancy tower blocks.
The principles of La Via Campesina are to resist, to transform and to build. “We have to work on all of these three levels,” Irmi says. “Resistance alone is not enough; we need to bring about transformation, build food co-ops and undermine our political systems.” The social and ecological aspects of transformation are, as we have seen, inseparable.
“The movement is successful and growing in Austria,” Irmi says, with defiance. One of the projects involved is Kleine Farm, run by Ulli Klein. Kleine Farm is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, a model imported from California, where the farmer is independent from the capitalist market economy. “We do not have to sell according to unit prices,” Ulli explains. They work out how much they have to earn to run the farm for a year and then manage their agriculture accordingly. At the moment, Kleine Farm supplies one hundred households with fresh, organic produce.
“The strength of Community Supported Agriculture,” Ulli says, “is that the behaviour of consumers is changing. People are taking responsibility.” The farm has also become a community space, where people can help out on the farm. “We publish a weekly farm newsletter and inform people about the reality of agriculture,” Ulli says. “We organise activities on the farm. The community is moving closer together.” Anna Ambrosch is another organic farmer from near Graz, whose BIOFUCHS project will be starting a community supported agriculture project next Spring. The movement is, quite literally, growing.
David Steinwender ends the session with a run down of the many socio-ecological initiatives in Graz: a seed library, farmers markets, food coops and community gardens among many others. “Elevate is the perfect venue to start the socio-ecological transformation,” he says. “After all, it is us people who will be able to bring about change.”
If we want to address climate change, then we must join the grassroots renewable energy movement and fight the fossil fuel future deployment of artificial volcanoes and geo-engineering. If we want to feed the world, then we must support small community farmers and organisations like La Via Campesina and fight industrial-scale synthetic biology, GMO and the totalising force of TTIP.
If we need an ecological revolution in the way we look after our planet, then we must lead a social revolution in the way we organise ourselves.
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.
Sleep 10 hours or more every night and you will reap huge benefits on your physical and mental performance and, not surprisingly, you’ll feel great! (You’ll also be less likely to get fat and die…)
Now, I’m not just making this up – science told me. Volume 34, Issue 7 of Sleep, in fact. More precisely, a snappily titled article, “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players”.
A-ha. Basketball players, you notice. Yes, the fact that their free throw and 3-point field goal percentages both increased by 9%, might seem to be rather sport-specific, but they were also faster in sprints and had faster reaction times. Not only that, but their mood was also elevated, with increased vigour and decreased fatigue and the players reported increased physical and mental well-being.
That’s the carrot, anyway. So why not try to sleep a couple of hours longer at night for a couple of weeks and see what happens? It might be hard at first, but persevere.
And if you prefer the stick to the carrot:
Short sleep duration is associated with obesity.
Short sleep duration is associated with greater risk of death.
These politics are also reflected in the fact that the most sexually active Americans are far more likely than average to approve of premarital or extramarital sex, to see positive benefits in pornography, to watch X-rated films, and to favor giving birth control pills to teenagers.
But it isn’t always liberal attitudes that match up with having a lot of sex. People who own guns also have higher-than-average sexual frequency.
Religion can be a minefield when it comes to having sex. But what are the stats?
A US study shows that Jews and agnostics are 20% more sexually active than Catholics and Protestants.
They also found that Baptists have slightly more sex than the national average, while Presbyterians and Lutherans are slightly below average.
But why? God only knows. I mean, I could speculate that it’s because there’s more shame and guilt associated with the Christian religions, but really I have no idea. Hell-fire and damnation tends to dampen the passions, somewhat.
Another study found that observant married Jewish women reported having sex three to six times per week more than twice as often as married women in general. Ooo-whee!
But there’s more! Statistics have also shown that people who rarely go to church have 31% more sex than people who regularly go to church. Not sure about people who never go to church.
Extremely devout people are also less likely to masturbate and use vibrators. Those who attend church regularly are less likely to become sexually active, to have multiple and casual partners, and to have extra-marital affairs.
If you want to have more sex, get rich or get poor.
People on very low incomes and those on very high incomes have sex more frequently than anybody else. Men earning a middle class income of £45,000 (US$75,000) per year average twelve fewer days of sex a year than men who earn about £15,000 (US$25,000) annually. Ouch.
I would hate to speculate why this might be, but I will nevertheless.
Low GDP has long been associated with high birth-rate in developing countries. But why? One possible answer is evolutionary.
A low income means an uncertain future for your progeny, compared to the future of sons and daughters of a person with plenty of money coming in. Poverty means inhibited access to medical care, education, food and many other things necessary to a secure life.
Therefore, in the absence of increasing wages, we have loads more sex in the hope that plenty of descendants will survive to pass on our genes through sheer statistical weight of numbers.
So why do the rich get loads of sex too?
One answer is that wealth has long been associated with desirability. If you’re rich and powerful, you are intoxicatingly attractive to the opposite sex, particularly to women if you are a man.
This doesn’t mean that men are any less shallow than women, just that we tend to go for a luscious child-bearing physique over a big bank balance.
So you were wondering how my week without a computer went, right? Well, here’s a few ideas:
I enjoyed how I was able to relax. I wasn’t stressing over the constant clamour of the internet.
I wasn’t very productive. I didn’t do much writing. The computer is where I compose most of my short writing, or at least where I edit it.
I didn’t miss the computer’s power of entertainment. I had the radio and a hefty supply of good (and not good) books.
But this is all academic really because I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in bed, with grown up chicken pox.
I might as well make this post useful, so if you’ve got chicken pox, here’s what to expect:
Days -4 to 0
A developing fever and a sore throat. You’ll think you’re getting a cold. Little do you know what the universe has in store for you: two weeks of ugly.
You are now highly contagious, but you aren’t aware of that so you give it to all your mates. They’ll thank you in 10-20 days’ time.
Discover funny little knobs behind head. Think that’s odd.
Collapse on floor in a faint.
Wake up sweating, inside washing basket. Wonder how you got there.
Discover the first pustule.
Pustules multiply, popping up before your very eyes.
A strange weight on your chest makes you paranoid that you’ve also developed pneumonia. Keep an eye on that.
You indulge in lots and lots of sleeping.
Pustules spread to legs, arms, back, face, and multiply on chest and everywhere.
A few spots are slightly itchy. Not compulsively itchy, just a slight throb, a feeling of bulge that is tempting to check out. Don’t.
Headaches persist through the day.
Hard to sleep at night due to discomfort of the pustules.
The weight on the chest, the sore throat and the headaches might have eased a little.
Neck still aches though and you’ve lost your appetite.
Pustules are multiplying and itching at a low level, but just enough to make you constantly aware of them.
You try to have a shower to clean up a little, but can’t really do much actual cleaning because of vast number of pustules on your scalp. Your hair is matted. You consider dreadlocks.
Notice that some have burst and some are starting to scab.
Your face is burning and you think you might have accidentally burst a pustule in your ear. But it could just have been general grossness as you are now the ugliest you’ve been since you came out of your mother covered in blood.
No chance of sleep because your face is covered with exploding volcanoes. The night is the worst time for sleeping. Get some in the morning.
Fever seems to alternate with itching.
Sleep in the day. Read. Twiddle thumbs. Listen to radio.
Get the shivers before going to bed.
Have heavy dreams, exhausting, fever and wake up with a headache and the sweats.
On the plus side: the itching is almost gone.
Feel ill some of the day.
Appetite definitely back as you eat a six-egg omelette with sauerkraut and ketchup (because that’s all you’ve got left in the cupboard).
Scared to believe that you have no new spots.
Try a bath with bicarbonate of soda – yeah!
Have best night’s sleep since Day 0. Still wake up three times for some sweats, but feel fine. Start enjoying the sweat.
You dare to hope that you’re over the worst.
Tired with a headache all morning and afternoon.
The pustules have mostly crusted over and are beginning to fall off, or get rubbed off.
You feel bored and lazy. This lassitude is now your biggest enemy.
You’re not contagious any more, but you still feel disinclined to go out in public in daylight.
Worst of the scabs are falling off all over the place. Gross.
Your first day of full-on activity, like a normal person.
You’re still a bit ugly, though.
The worst of the scabs leaves a crater in your cheek.
The face ones seem to develop and fall off faster than the chest ones.
Could pass for a slightly uglier version of yourself. People stop screaming when they see your face.
Just a few marks on your face that could be dry skin or normal spots.
Your chest still looks like leprosy. Don’t show anyone.
Still some itching against your clothes.
And still it goes on. Apparently chicken pox marks can take months to fully vanish – and, of course, some of them will scar you for life.
Want to know your prenatal androgen exposure level?
I mean: want to know how much of a testosterone-fuelled beast you are?
Well, do this then:
Measure the length of your index finger (2nd finger) from the crease at the base to the tip. Not including nails. That’s cheating.
Now measure the length of your ring finger (4th finger).
Do it for both hands, just for interest.
Now get a calculator (unless you are Rain Man).
Divide the length of your index by the length of your ring (finger). You should end up with a number between about 0.90 and 1.10.
Do it for both hands, just for interest. They should be similar, but your dominant hand is the more important number for this game.
NOTE:Ethnicity plays a big part here, so find someone else to compare with for real fun. The interpretations below are for white Caucasians. Other populations have relatively lower or higher ratios – doesn’t mean they are more or less mannish!
If you are a MAN:
0.98 is the average.
0.94 is macho.
1.00 is more feminine.
If you are a WOMAN:
1.00 is average.
0.98 is more masculine.
1.02 is girly.
This test for testosterone and oestrogen exposure has been demonstrated in humans since the 1930s. And, since 2006, in pheasants.
What does this mean?
IMPORTANT: Much of the evidence for the traits below is tentative or based on single trials. Don’t take anything too much to heart! These results show tendencies, not hard and fast rules. But it’s still interesting.
While the ratio interpretations above are for ethnic white Caucasians, the conclusions below hold true across ethnic boundaries.
People with a low ratio tend to have low verbal intelligence, high numerical intelligence and low ‘agreeableness’.
Men with higher ratios tend to do better in exams.
Men with a low ratio are more likely to be aggressive. This doesn’t hold for women, though.
Male traders on the stock market are more likely to be profitable and stay in the business for longer if they have a low ratio. Biology and experience come out about equal as predictors of success. Which is incredible really. Men with lower ratios are better at ‘rapid visuomotor scanning,’ physical reflexes and are happier with exposure to risk.
Men with a low ratio are more likely to suffer from attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Men with a high ratio are more likely to be depressive.
Women with a higher ratio have a higher sexual success rate.
Women with a low ratio are more likely to report a ‘male sex-role’ in the bedroom.
Men with a low ratio tend to have a higher sperm count. Men with a high ratio are more likely to suffer germ cell failure, which sounds painful.
The ratio is not a good predictor of sexualilty, however – in either men or women.
Women with lower ratios are more likely to play sports, and to play them at a high level.
Men with lower ratios are more physically competitive. Professional footballers have lower ratios than amateurs; footballers who played for the England national squad (i.e. ‘the best’) have lower ratios than those who haven’t.
FYI: I got all of these trials by following the footnotes in the Wikipedia article on Digit Ratio.
The brain has two body clocks: one in the “old” and one in the “new” brain.
The new brain body clock works on natural light patterns. This clock can only shift about 2 hours a day. That’s why it gets thoroughly confused when we cross the planet and the sun is rising at half past midnight.
The old brain body clock, however, works to make sure you are awake when food is around. If we were always asleep at dinner time, we wouldn’t live very long.
Normally, the new brain is in charge, but there is a way to switch over to the old brain: by throwing our bodies into survival mode.
How do we do that? By starving ourselves.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but apparently it takes about 16 hours of fasting before the old brain body clock will take over, believing food to be scarce.
So if you’re flying from San Francisco to London, take a meal at the usual time in San Francisco, say, breakfast at 8.00am, then don’t eat anything at all until the next appropriate meal time in London, say, breakfast the next day at 8.00pm. Your body will switch onto the old brain and register the body clock time as “breakfast”: exactly what you want.
Exercise is particularly important for women to tone down negative consequences of hormonal changes. Exercise balances the system. Boosted levels of serotonin in the body regulates mood and aggression, which can be affected by hormonal changes such as the pregnancy, PMS and the menopause.
Physical activity increases levels of tryptophan in the bloodstream and therefore the concentration of serotonin in the brain. It balances dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF. And keeps glutamate and GABA (too high in PMS sufferers) balanced as well.
You can exercise while pregnant, but keep it fairly light. 30 minutes at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate per day.
For PMS, try 1 hour of aerobic exercise 4 times a week before your period.
In general, women benefit from moderate intensity workouts, but go with how you feel.
Remember that we evolved for long distance walking, not for sitting around in front of computers! Exercise is nature’s way of regulating chemicals in the body.
Obesity has doubled since the seventies. The ruling hypothesis to explain this is that the rise is due to more calories consumed and less exercise performed.
But, according to food consumption statistics, our diet has ‘improved’. We eat less fat and saturated fat now than we did in the seventies. And we do more exercise now as well. Believe it or not, exercise was seen as potentially unhealthy in the 1960s. The only things that we are eating more of now compared to the seventies and earlier are carbohydrates.
Furthermore, obesity is linked to poverty, not to the excess food that comes from wealth. In very poor families, the men are very fat – and the women are even fatter, even though they do most of the work. Why would it be linked to poverty? The mass production and distribution of carbohydrates like rice, sugar and wheat means that these are cheap food products compared to the relatively expensive meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. There is no ‘thrifty gene’ that tells our bodies to store fat when times are good or when we know that food will be scarce.
The storage of fat is an evolutionary adaptation, not a response to environmental circumstances. For example, squirrels will put fat on in winter, whatever you do. You can keep them from hibernating, you can starve them, you can even perform surgery to remove their winter fat – but their bodies will still put the weight on, and lose it again in the spring. That’s just what happens: it’s nothing to do with their diet and nothing to do with the reduction in exercise during hibernation.
It’s Nothing To Do With Diet or Exercise
(Of course, diet and exercise are vitally important in many other aspects of health. I am talking here purely about obesity.)
Starvation diets don’t work. You lose a bit, then put it back on with interest when you go off the diet. (This has nothing to do with the health benefits of eating slightly less than you want, see my earlier post.) Often the obese eat less than the lean. Gluttony and sloth are not to blame, they are just ways of making fat people feel guilty and of making thin people feel good about their superior morals.
Positive and negative caloric balance, eating more or less than you need, does not affect weight. Our body finds balance no matter what we do. If we eat more than we need, our metabolism will speed up and burn the excess calories off. If we eat less than we need, our metabolism will slow down and conserve calories (and we might live longer…).
There was an experiment where volunteers were fed 4000 calories a day. The subjects gained a few pounds and then their weight stabilised, so the researchers decided to increase the calories:
First to 5000 calories a day.
Then to 7000 calories a day.
Then to 10000 calories a day – all while remaining sedentary!
The researchers noted that there were, ‘marked differences between individuals in ability to gain weight.’ One person gained just 9lbs after 30 weeks of this regimen. Afterwards, everyone lost weight with the speed that they had gained it.
Calorific balance tends to 0, whether you are on a 1000 calorie diet or a 10000 calorie diet.
Nor does exercise affect weight. If we exercise more, we eat more. Hence the phrase, ‘work up an appetite’. Exercise only burns a fraction of the calories we consume. You would have to walk up 20 flights of stairs to burn off the caloric input of 4 pieces of bread.
Danish researchers trained previously sedentary people to run marathons. After 18 months of intensive training:
The 18 men lost an average of 5lbs (2.25kg) of fat.
The 9 females lost nothing at all.
There are even studies that show people getting fatter with exercise, just as dieting regimes can do.
Weight gain varies ten-fold between different people, indicating that it is genetic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us: we breed cattle for high fat yield using genetic principles. The difference in the size of cows is not put down to over-eating or sedentary behaviour, so why do we do that for fat humans?
We are born with a genetically influenced body shape. The proportion of fat on your body will not change even if you lose or gain weight. There are three basic types of body morphology:
Mesomorphs: wedge-shaped power houses.
Ectomorphs: thin as a rake.
Endomorphs: pear shaped.
Of course, most people have elements of one and aspects of another, but the general principle is clear: your shape is genetically influenced.
Size is a Class Issue
There is also a class issue here. McDonald’s is blamed, but Starbucks is not, even though a large frappacino with cream has just as many calories as a Big Mac. People who watch TV are called couch potatoes and lazy, but people who stay sitting at their desk reading books are not.
Finally: if our environment was toxic, then why aren’t we all fat? It is not down to will-power or moral rectitude, as some people would like.
This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p233 onwards)
Addictions are tough. Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%; cocaine increases it 300-800%. The allure of drugs is vivid in comparison to natural highs. But we can do ourselves great harm with this dopamine abuse. Dopamine is key to wanting something, not necessarily liking it. You see this happen all the time. Addicts crave the hit and will do anything to fix it. But when it comes, they’re already looking forward to the next one.
Addiction isn’t just about dopamine though. Addiction is learnt as well. We develop bad habits, automatic responses and reflexes. These learnt habits stick with us for a long time and relapse is all too easy. Addictions are about being passive to our cravings, being weak in the face of temptation and easily succumbing to the lazy thought habits we have developed. Exercise is the opposite, however. Exercise is about action, strength of mind and clear thinking.
Exercise or Drugs?
There are two effective solutions to stress – exercise or drugs. Cigarettes and nicotine are a relaxant and a stimulant. But so too is exercise. Just 5 minutes intense exercise lowers stress and builds dopamine. You can replace cigarettes with exercise. One real side-effect of quitting cigarettes is that your focus will be impaired through withdrawal of the nicotine. Exercise increases your ability to focus, so combining quitting smoking with a new exercise regime will actually help you quit.
Exercise also counteracts the mind-dulling effects of drugs like morphine and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana and chocolate activate endocannabinoids, causing the mild euphoria we experience when using these drugs. But so too does exercise. During exercise anandamide is used to block pain, causing euphoria at high intensities – something called the ‘runner’s high’.
If you do 50 minutes exercise at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate your level of anandamide doubles, meaning you’ll replace cravings for your addictions with the ‘runner’s high’.
Take up thrill-seeking. This will get your dopamine levels up and you’ll find you crave less from your addictions. Also the more thrills you get from exercise, the more you’ll pursue it.
Increase your self-control with a regimen of exercise. The discipline and healthy feel of exercise means you’ll also smoke less, drink less caffeine and alcohol, eat less junk food, do less impulse spending and procrastinate less.
As a bare minimum try to workout 30 minutes, 5 days a week. In an ideal world, workout everyday.
Don’t just pound the roads around your house. Vary your exercise.
Try something that demands your full attention, like almost any competitive sport or yoga.
Even 10 minutes of high intensity exercise will reduce cravings.
Skipping rope jumping is good for when you need a quick fix to knock craving on the head: 10 minutes feels like 30 minutes biking.
Exercise counters depression at almost every level. With regular exercise we become less anxious, less neurotic, less angry, less stressed, less cynical, less distrustful, more sociable, and more confident. How?
Exercise boosts norepinephrine, which boosts our feelings of self-esteem.
Exercise boosts dopamine, which boosts our motivation, attention, focus and satisfaction.
Exercise boosts serotonin, which enhances our mood and boosts our impulse control. It boosts our feelings of self-esteem and increases our capacity for learning.
Exercise boosts BDNF, which protects neurons against cortisol, the chemical released when we are under stress.
Exercise has been shown to work as well as the drug Zoloft against depression. The improvement isn’t as dramatic as the drug, but exercise performs better over the long-term, over about 6 months.
When we’re depressed, the brain stops adapting, it shuts down learning capacity at the cellular level. This means that we find it incredibly hard to work our way out of the hole. Depression is a form of hibernation. Instead of hibernating when food supplies are low, depression pushes us into hibernating when our emotions are low.
Just 10 minutes exercise can lift your mood, but only briefly.
For best results, workout for 3-5 sessions per week.
Work at a high-intensity, 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
The brain is plastic; it isn’t fixed rigid from the day you were born to the day you will die. Brain cells can grow or die, they can strengthen or weaken throughout your life. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘when neurons fire together, they wire together.’ This is a fancy way of saying that, if you do something over and over again, you’ll get better and better at it and, eventually, you’ll be able to do that something without even thinking about it. Remember when you learnt to ride your bike? It was a nightmare at first, then you had stabilisers, then you were as free as a bird, flying down the road. That was the result of your brain’s neurons firing together over and over again and eventually wiring together so tightly that you didn’t have to think about pedalling or steering or braking any more.
Only mobile creatures need brains. Brains are very expensive things to run, they cost us a lot in terms of energy. If we didn’t really need a brain, we wouldn’t have one. There’s a particular mollusc that is born with a brain so that it can move across the rocks away from its birthplace. When it has found a new home, it doesn’t need the brain anymore so it eats it. Yum. You could say that thinking is the internalisation of movement, therefore it is only to be expected that exercise should have a profound effect on the brain.
And indeed it does. Exercise elevates the following chemicals in your brain:
Serotonin, which controls your mood.
Dopamine, which is your brain’s ‘reward centre’, linked with movement and learning.
Norepinephrine, which controls your attention and motivation.
BDNF, dubbed ‘MiracleGro for the brain’. This creates new branches of synapses. In other words: it grows brain cells.
And the more exercise you do, the more it spikes growth.
The brain can’t learn while exercising, but blood goes to the prefrontal cortex immediately after exercise, making it ripe for learning something new.
Both aerobic (e.g. running, cycling) and complex activities (e.g. playing the piano, martial arts) are important.
Aerobic exercise elevates executive function neurotransmitters. This will create new blood vessels and new cells.
Complex activities increase BDNF, which strengthens and expands synapse networks.
Tennis is a good example of an activity that combines both aerobic and complex activity. Other examples are yoga, pilates and dancing. Dancing to an irregular rhythm, like the tango, is particularly good for improving your brain’s plasticity.
Try to hit a least 35 minutes at 60-70% intensity (for women) or at your maximum heart rate (for men).
If you think about what happens when you become anxious, it is very similar to your response to hard exercise: your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. That’s stress. Because of this, exercise can become a safe place to have a high heart rate and fast breathing. You can learn that a high heart rate and fast breathing does not mean that you are having an anxiety attack. Over time you become more comfortable with arousal and your brain gets reprogrammed to deal with stressful situations without feeling anxious.
The science of it is that exercise increases levels of something called FFA in the bloodstream. As a result, this lowers the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream. To bring the ratio back to normal, the body increases production of tryptophan, which in turn builds serotonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel good.
Fear is the memory of anxiety
Fear is the feeling we get when we are presented with a situation that we have faced before and which made us feel anxious: it is the memory of some past anxiety. There is some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss. Panic is the state we get into when we are paralysed by our anxiety.
Drown out the fear
You can’t erase fear completely, the synaptic pathways in your brain cannot be erased. However, you can ‘drown out’ the fear by creating new positive synaptic pathways that strengthen and become the brain’s first response to the stressful situation. Simply doing something in response to your anxiety, rather than being passive, is beneficial. This is called ‘Active Coping’.
There are a number of ways that exercise tackles anxiety:
It is a distraction, literally, from the stress.
It reduces muscle tension, just like beta-blockers, but unlike beta-blockers, you are totally self-reliant, which will also build your self-confidence.
It builds brain resources (chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and BDNF), making your brain tougher.
It teaches you a different outcome of a stressful situation: your heart rate is up, you’re expecting to panic – but all is good! It reroutes your negative circuits to positive ones.
It improves your resilience to stressful situations. You are in control, not the anxiety.
It is active, not passive, so sets you free. Locked down people get anxious and depressed.
Rigorous exercise is the best way of hurting anxiety: 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
It’s not just for those with anxiety disorders, exercise will help with everyday anxieties that we all face.
Stress is stress, the only difference is degree. There’s the extreme stress of losing your job, but even standing up from the computer is a stress on your body. The only difference is degree.
Exercise is controlled emotional and physical stress. Exercise breaks down neurons, just like any other stress, but in a controlled way. The repair mechanisms that kick in after the exercise leave you stronger for next time. A low level of stress is good for you, like a vaccine. Exercise raises your brain’s tolerance for stressful situations and you will be better able to deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life if you exercise regularly.
There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ stress
Your body makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress. Winning the lottery and being faced with a hungry lion both trigger a stress response in the brain. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are just our opinions and sometimes the same stress can be ‘good’ in one situation and ‘bad’ in another. For example, a soldier trained to suspect car bombs feels stress when he is faced with an unknown car: great in Afghanistan, not so useful in Amersham. Stress is what saves us when faced with the hungry lion by triggering the fight or flight response. When your brain is stressed it boosts levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, increasing your focus and attention, helping you get that essay done on deadline day!
But of course we all know that too much stress, or constant low-level stress is miserable. Stressed people become obsessed (not emotionally, chemically) with the object of the stress and ignore everything else. Stress inhibits learning as well, making the stress self-reinforcing, as your brain can’t learn from the past mistakes that have caused the stress. It becomes a negative feedback loop.
Loneliness can become a part of this negative feedback loop as well. Stress makes us less likely to seek out society and, with fewer friends, we have less support through the tough times and the stress persists.
As we all know, stress can have a serious negative impact on our health. One of the ways it does is poor diet. After stress the brain craves glucose to replenish its stocks. This is fine if we are only occasionally stressed, but if we’re constantly stressed out then this response becomes unhealthy.
How does exercise tackle stress?
Exercise builds more insulin receptors, for more efficient use of glucose.
Exercise strengthens the synaptic pathways in your brain by increasing production of BDNF. This makes your brain better able to deal with future stresses.
Exercise relaxes the resting tension in the muscles, so the brain can relax too.
Exercise lowers blood pressure.
Exercise can increase social activity through participation in team sports or social contact at the gym.
Exercise is something you can do, it gives you control over the stress. This will boost your self-confidence.
Exercise has been shown to be more effective against stress than food, alcohol or medication so make exercise a part of your life. Consider the fact that palaeolithic man used to walk 5-10 miles a day. Today, however, a large proportion of the modern Western population (including myself) has a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. This is not the lifestyle that our brains have evolved for.
I keep exercise in my daily life by cycling around London instead of taking public transport. When I haven’t got any plans to cycle anywhere, I make sure that I take several walks during the day and try to go for a short run as well.
Team sports are particularly good ways of building exercise into your life because very often there is a constant stream of games and the obligation of not letting the team down compels you to exercise. It’s also good fun!
It has been found that calorie restriction (i.e. eating less) in mice:
Prevents rapid tumour growth.
Makes the mice more active as well.
Anecdotally, the Okinawans of Japan, one of the world’s longest living and active populations, abide by an old saying, ‘hara hachi-bu,’ which translates roughly as ‘eat until you are 80% full.‘ Of course that is only an anecdote. In reality, they eat, on average, 11% less than the average Japanese diet.
How does that work?
It could be because, when you eat, your body produces insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also promotes growth. That means it promotes growth in malignant, i.e. cancerous, cells. Diet can change the growth environment of cells, including cancer cells. It changes the nurture, not the nature of cells. Diet does not contain carcinogens. It can just create an environment that cancer cells will flourish in.
If you restrict rats to 2/3rds of calories then they will live 30-50% longer. Why? Because they have less body fat? Because they have lower weight? No. Obese mice on a restricted diet live longer than non-obese mice on a non-restricted diet and the same as non-obese mice on a restricted diet.
Eating less is the thing, not leanness.
The popular answer is that it reduces the creation of free radical cells and therefore reduces the oxidation of cells and thus the opportunities for cancerous cells to develop. When food is scarce (i.e. when your body gets a signal that it is not eating a 100% diet) you live longer so that you will survive the starvation period and still be young enough to reproduce.
This may well be correct, but calorie restricted mice also have:
Low insulin resistance.
Low blood sugar.
Low insulin levels.
Low levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF).
Low-carb for a long life?
The glucose found in carbohydrates causes IGF and insulin levels to rise sharlply, in comparison to other food groups. So, in 2004, Cynthia Kenyon asked: could a low-carbohydrate diet lengthen lifespan in humans? By reducing carbohydrates and glucose she was able to reduce:
Triglyceride levels (a fatty acid linked to incidence of heart disease and strokes).
Blood sugar levels.
And to increase levels of HDL (High-density lipoprotein, ‘good’ cholesterol).
While she is not able to conclude, after just six years, that a low-carbohydrate diet will lengthen the human lifespan, it seems to be promising data.
This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p218 onwards)