Category Archives: Provocations

Make the connections.

Chris Packham is not popular with those who enjoy the privilege of owning the land that allows them to indulge in ‘hunting, shooting, and fishing’. Not popular because he has drawn attention to the fact that, for example, they all-too-often ignore, or encourage their employees to ignore, the laws that protect the raptors they regard as vermin. He will probably be less popular still now he has warned that the UK is increasingly becoming “a green and unpleasant land” that’s heading towards “an ecological apocalypse”. Quite rightly, he is worried by the fact that designated nature reserves are becoming a distraction that blinds people to the necessary business of addressing the catastrophic depletion of wildlife in the countryside, with all that follows on from this.

I am sure there are people who, while perhaps upset by these issues, see them as secondary to the fact that, yesterday, the Guardian newspaper drew attention on its front page to the National Audit Office’s damning report on the Tory Government’s Universal Credit System, a costly and deeply inhuman measure that has already caused a great deal of very real and entirely unnecessary human suffering. (Significantly, it’s trail-run has been conducted in some of the poorest areas of the country). This system is, let’s be clear, one of the Government’s flagship mechanisms for ‘weaponizing’ State bureaucracy in the pursuit of ‘austerity’, effectively a war on the poor, chronically sick, and the poorly-off elderly. Like so much of ‘austerity’ thinking, is simply a smokescreen for refusing to address the obscene gap between the super-rich and the poor in our society by legislating for social justice and raising taxation.

Today, although admittedly not on the front page, the same newspaper draws attention to Sir Christopher Robert Chope, the MP for Christchurch in Dorset, who has recently blocked the passage of a private member’s bill that would have made ‘upskirting’ a specific offence. (Despite the fact that he apparently was unsure what ‘upskirting’ actually involved). On the same day, he and another member of the Government forced a delay to the final debate on a bill designed to improve oversight of the use of force in mental health units, which suggest he regards both women and those with mental health issues as equally unworthy of legislative protection.

Chope is, among other things,  a private landlord, so it is no doubt natural in his eyes that he should have contributed to the democratic process by filibustered a bill intended to make revenge evictions by landlords an offence. Additionally he has furthered the course of democracy by calling for the abolition of the minimum wage, blocking a bill to protect poor countries from “vulture funds”, helping host a meeting of climate-science sceptics at Westminster, voting against same-sex marriage, objecting to the second reading of the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill, lobbying for the reintroduction of capital punishment and conscription, promoting the privatizing the BBC, calling for the banning the burka in public, and voting against the Equal Pay (Transparency) Bill. He is, it goes without saying, a keen supporter of Brexit.

His other claim to fame came during the parliamentary expenses scandal, when it was revealed that he had claimed £136,992 in parliamentary expenses in 2007/08, included one for £881 to repair a sofa. This neatly demonstrated the same commitment to furthering the common good as his eleventh-hour long objection to the Hillsborough debate taking place because he believed a debate about MPs’ pensions was more important.

For these and other outstanding services, the present Government saw fit to have Chope appointed a Knight Bachelor in the 2018 New Year Honours list. The Establishment is, after all, nothing if not loyal to its own.

I stress this last point because it is all too easy to focus on the man himself, forgetting that he was an elected Tory MP from 1983 -1992 and again from 1997 to the present time. In short, repugnant as his mindset and actions may be to a great many of us, they are clearly approved of by the majority in a constituency that keeps electing him. One largely made up not of the Establishment itself, but those who aspire to its values, that lives in coastal retirement havens, prosperous suburbs, and a town now surrounded by dedicated sheltered housing. One with the highest proportion of over-60s of all UK constituencies.

In short, the news items I’ve referred to have far more in common than we might initially assume. They indicate the power of a Tory party supported by the wealthier part of an ageing population, that elevates socially conservative, reactionary, traditionalist, and right-wing figures like Chope and Jacob Rees-Mogg. A (large) faction of the party that is in thrall to those born into wealth and privilege and are ardent supporters and beneficiaries of the capitalist system at its most excessive and destructive. (Chope has worked as a consultant with Ernst and Young and supported “vulture funds” that exploit the people and natural resources of the poorest nations, while Rees-Mogg co-founded a hedge fund management business, leaving him and his wife with an estimated fortune of over £100 million, including a second home in London worth £5.625 million).

This group of influential Tory voters, many of whom will be members of the National Trust, English Heritage, and similar organisations that claim to protect the British landscape, appear to take heart from the fact that the men they admire, and so elect to represent them, live in a world entirely insulated from that inhabited by those people who are subject to the injustices of the Universal Credit System. (In 2017 Rees-Mogg boasted in an interview that he had never pretended “to be a modern man at all, ever”, including admitting that he had never changed a nappy because: “I don’t think nanny would approve because I’m sure she’d think I wouldn’t do it properly”).

These are the same men who are desperate to take the UK out of Europe at any cost in the name of ‘national sovereignty’. A desire that largely boils down to promoting an isolationism that will enable them to increase their own wealth and power and that of the social elite to which they belong. The same elite that is so critical of Chris Packham for drawing attention to the hypocrisy of their claims to be ‘guardians’ of all that is best about Britain, including its countryside and wildlife. The elite that supports and funds a Tory party that has put Michael Gove, a man who tried to have climate change removed from the geography curriculum as Education Secretary, in charge of the Ministry for the Environment.

We really do need to start making, and acting on, these connections if we want to avoid descending into a socio-ecological apocalypse far more wide-reaching than that indicated by Chris Packham.

‘Greening’ the Borders: a personal meander through questions of agriculture, woods and wetlands


Borders mixed woodland



Around mid-summer I spent some time visiting various mosses and other wetlands in the English / Scottish Borders. These included Ford Moss, a lowland raised mire to the south-west of Berwick-upon-Tweed; the three Whitlaw Mosses just east of Selkirk; and the Gordon Feuars Moss, a wet wood, just outside the village of Gordon.

This last is a very particular place, the remnant of a large floodplain mire dominated by a low tangle of birch and willow growing over a variety of fen and bog peatland habitats. It appeared entirely un-managed and, as such, made me think it might be some of the last “natural” remaining native woodland in Britain. However, on looking at a large-scale map later, I found that there are drains marked as running through two sections of the reserve: Gordon Moss Nature Reserve itself and the neighbouring strip known as Minister’s Bog. However a third area, Laird’s Bog, appears to be undrained, suggesting that there has been only minimum human intervention in the area in the past. That was certainly my impression ‘on the ground’.

What interests me is not, however, whether or not such a place is in some sense “pristine’, but how it fits into the shifting politics of land ‘improvement’ and environmental concern that is now starting to shape the Borders landscape.


Marker on the edge of Gordon Fears Moss.


In the ‘Laird’s Bog’ wet woodland at Gordon Feuars Moss


A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Counciltells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region – blanket bog, lowland raised bog, fens or flushes, reed beds, coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, wet woodland, lowland meadows, upland hay meadows, purple moor-grass (Molinia), rush pasture, and lochs. All of these are environmentally important. (Peatlands, for example, reduce global climate change by acting as carbon sinks that capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Twenty percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon is captured and stored in peatlands located in the northern hemisphere). I have two related reservations about this report’s neat definitions, however. The first is that surely one of the important qualities of wetlands is psycho-social rather than environmental as that term is usually understood – their quiet ‘wildness’ in Don McKay’s sense of that word. That is, their capacity “to elude the mind’s appropriations” (2001 p.21), even those provided by scientific organisations like environmental research consultancies. My second, related, reservation is that, in practice and perhaps somewhat ironically, it’s precisely human intervention that so often makes a nonsense of any such neat distinctions. (Wet woodland, precisely because it occurs as small areas of wood or localised patches in larger woods on floodplains, as successional habitat on fens, mires and bogs, along streams and hill-side flushes, and in peaty hollows, many of which border on cultivated agricultural or other land, often combines elements of many other ecosystems).

Repairing the old sheep fank on the Carter Burn near the entrance to Burns in the Wauchope Forest area.

Sign marking the entrance to the Burns.

The image of an old sheep fans above is located in what was once an area of upland hay meadow.  It may originally have been bounded by wet woodland similar to that at Gordon Fears Moss and subject to regular flooding. The fank, however, is a product of the move towards land enclosure and the introduction of large-scale sheep farming. Then, beginning in the 1920s, sheep farming in this area was increasingly replaced by forestry, particularly the monoculture of Sitka spruce that now dominates the Wauchope Forest. Over the last eighteen years, I’ve watched this remnant of old upland hay meadow being further transformed; overrun by a mixture of bracken, reeds, and the beginnings of what may become a ribbon of deciduous wet woodland. While this process of change will continue one way or another, how it will fit into the wider pattern of future Borders land use is an open question.

The Midstream Collective

The Midstream Collective (left to right: CB, IB & MM)

I took the journeys indicated above because I wanted to get a sense of these wetland places ‘on the ground’ and to collect images. I was working towards a celebration of wetlands with my friends Christine Baeumler (an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota) and Mary Modeen (an Associate Dean at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee) for presentation at a conference in September. These are my partners in the Midstream Collective, which we set up some years back to ‘badge’ the collaborative work we wanted to do together.

As so often happens when I visit new places, the explorations with one end in view have set me thinking about another – land use on the Borders, both past and present – which in turn provoked this essay.

Ford Moss and its woodland


Ford Moss Nature Reserve sign

Ford Moss from the south-east

The Ford Moss Nature Reserve, wedged between a mix of farm land and old forestry plantation, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that sits in the hollow of a hill overlooking the Till Valley and the Cheviots. The Moss extends over about one hundred and fifty acres and is classified as a lowland raised mire. That’s to say its ecology is underpinned by a deep peat layer laid down by the rotting of vegetation over many thousands of years. The moss has become dryer over the last 250 years, but retains echoes of its older landscape form, which is undergoing ‘renovation’. The nature reserve includes old mixed woodland that’s adjacent to the moss and contains both mature Scots Pine and Oak.

I was unable to walk into the moss itself, which is fenced to keep people away from its “soft and treacherous surface”. Instead, I (largely) followed the circular two-mile path around its edge. The wildlife, particularly the birds, were present from the start, as indicated by the variety and volume of bird song, most noticeably of thrushes, blackbirds and skylarks. The persistent call of a buzzard hunting high over the moss accompanied me for much of the second half of my walk. I also had the luck to encounter a Roe doe at close quarters.

Broken snail shell – evidence of a thrush’s activity?

A buzzard calling high over the moss

Roe doe caught unawares

As I started walking around the moss, it struck me that the mature Scots Pine and Oak woodland bordering its southern side and situated on an incline, echoed descriptions of woodland I’ve read and thought about a good deal in the past.

Mature woodland on the slope to the south side of Ford Moss

This is the old woodland of the Jed Forest that had once covered an area of land called the Wauchope Forest, now largely taken over by commercial forestry. That area that interests me sits north and west of the Carter Bar pass on the Scottish side of the Cheviot Hills. (This is well down the Border to the south-west of Ford Moss in the old Middle March). The area I’m particularly attached to consists of three parallel low ridges with the Carter and Black Burn running between them into the Jed Water.

What came to my mind was that the woodland at Ford Moss was almost certainly of the same type that persisted, probably with relatively little change, from around the time of the end of the Roman occupation to some point in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when the Lowlands were ‘improved’. (Jennifer Owen, in her magisterial Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study, suggests that by 400 AD. only 30% of England was wooded, although the percentage would have been considerably higher in the Borders). I regularly visit this area between Carter Bar and the former parish of Southdean when I’m in the Borders and have done so for almost twenty years now.

The politics of land use

The remains of Tamshiel Rig, photographed c. 2002. Fifteen years later this site, if it still exists at all, is completely inaccessible due to the density of the Sitka planting. 

I stopped in Jedburgh on my way from Ford Moss to visit the land around Tamshiel Rig – a medieval shieling built on the site of what was once one of the best-preserved Iron Ages farms in Britain (until it was plowed up for forestry). While I was there I bought a copy of Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell’s The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution 1760-1830 (Tuckwell Press, 2012).  Like so much historical research into social conditions in rural Scotland, it’s a stark reminder of how issues of social justice, ownership, and land use are intimately linked, of the complexity of those links, and of how the language of ‘progress’ has been used to justify the imposition of ‘top-down’ changes that have had long-standing consequences. (The authors reckon that the ‘improvement’ of Lowland agriculture traumatised, displaced, or otherwise disrupted, the lives of almost one third of the population. These were for the most part cotters, the poorest members of Borders society. In this context, it’s important to know that even today more than half of Scotland is still owned by less that 500 people, a situation with enormous socio-environmental consequences.

Two views reported in the book are relevant to my visit to the former parish of Southdean, where the population has been steadily declining year on year. The first is that of an establishment orthodoxy that views the enclosures and the improvements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a mark of unqualified progress. For that orthodoxy, the creation of “big new farms in place of common grazing” not only “completely altered the landscape of Scotland”, it ushered in the new, scientific agriculture essential to Scotland entering the modern industrial age (p. 72).

The second view is that of the historian Dr James Hunter. Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, was the first Director of its Centre for History, and the author of thirteen books about the Highlands and Islands and that region’s diaspora. He was the first director of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Federation and is a former chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Unsurprisingly then, he contrasts the “empty deserted glens” central to large-scale Lowland sheep farming and “kept going solely by vast, enormous subsidies from Europe”, with “the unimproved parts of Scotland … the crofting counties”, where “you see a much more viable society”. (p. 148) He also suggests that the people who resisted the ‘improvements’, where, from the perspective of our present eco-social situation, those with the better, more sensible, more economically and environmentally viable vision of the Scottish landscape than the “few subsidy junkies” who now dominate “rural Scotland where improvement was given full reign” (ibid).

Lindean loch information board.

Lindean loch.

The historical link between the loss of wetlands and ‘improvements’ of various kinds is neatly illustrated by what’s known of Linden reservoir or loch, located just east of Selkirk. Prior to the eighteenth century, this would have been the lowest, and possibly most extensive, of what are now collectively known as the Whitlaw Mosses. (The remaining three are ‘Murder’, ‘Beanrig’ and ‘Blackpool’ Moss).

Whitlow moss, looking west towards Lindean Loch

Whitlaw Moss.

Although the loch looks ‘natural’ enough today, it is in fact the product of two major human interventions. As a standing body of water, it’s largely the result of the extensive extraction of lime rich marl (a form of clay), dug by hand during the eighteenth century. Marl that was then used as fertiliser locally to improve the grass necessary for intensive grazing. Then, in the twentieth century, the loch was dammed to provide a public water supply for nearby villages, a situation that continued into the nineteen seventies. Now notable for its lime-rich water and soil, and for the six hundred and more plant and animal species apparently found in and around it, the loch was designated an SSSI in 1977.

Rethinking woods and wetlands – Kielder, Wauchope and other commercial Borders forests

Clear-felled area of hillside north of Kielder


Clear-felled area at Burns in the Wauchope forest

Given my long-standing interest in the area just north west of Carter Bar, someone familiar with the area would probably expect me to visit the Border Mires, the name given to a collection of peat bog sites in, and adjacent to, Kielder Forest in Northumberland, rather than the mosses I in fact visited. After all this area was, until planting began in the 1920s, predominantly open moorland and mire, with remnants of native upland woodland – some of it wet – along stream sides and in isolated craggy areas. Now it’s the largest man-made forest in Europe, with three-quarters of its six hundred and fifty square kilometres covered by commercial forestry, of which seventy-five percent is Sitka spruce. Like all such forests, it is a depressingly monotonous and oppressive environment that, typically, sustains very little in the way of wildlife and provides little employment.

There are, however, fifty-eight separate peat bog sites within the overall forest area. These are in remote locations and largely made up of deep lenses of peat located in larger areas of blanket bog. They can be up to fifteen meters deep in places and are almost all dependent on rainfall to maintain their water-balance. Taken together, they store more water than the Kielder reservoir itself, the largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, which holds forty-four billion gallons, figure that reminds me forcibly of the importance of peat bog in the retention and general management of water, particularly in relation to flooding.

Kielder Water reservoir.

My problem with trying to visit the Border Mires sites is that, not only are they almost all in very remote areas, but they are also designated SSSIs and require permission to visit them. Given the contingencies of our family situation and of factors like the weather, this simply isn’t practical for me. So, over the years I’ve spent time in the area of Scotland just over the border from Kielder in places I would call ‘wet edge lands’. That is, places that historically have been radically reconfigured by climate change, then by human enclosure and, later again, by the forestry practices used to create the current forest monoculture.


The Black Burn, it’s banks damaged by industrial scale clear-felling, is now producing marsh-like areas along its upper length. These are frequently flooded and almost always remain waterlogged. 

Roadside drainage ditch running into Carter Burn (2017).

The management of water in this area is now wholly determined by the needs of the forestry industry, in particular the quick and effective extraction of large volumes of timber. Crude roads built for this reason often disrupt the natural flow of water and, as a result, have a substantive impact on the two burns.  The new drainage ditch pictured above now above runs directly into Carter Burn, and over time will almost certainly impact on its course and water quality. If it speeds up lateral erosion it may undermine the bank that separates the burn from the nearby pool and, in doing so, substantially change the course of the burn.


A standing pool, perhaps originally created by the silting up of an old flood meander in the Carter Burn, also shows some evidence of having been dammed at some point, perhaps to provide water in connection with the nearby fank shown earlier.


The Carter Burn valley

The images above are indicative of the area in which I go to walk, look, listen, and remember; that is to find ways into the numerous processes that produced, and are still producing, this landscape.

What’s to remember here? Many things, but in particular the continuous processes of both sedimented and sudden change. Before it was ploughed up and obliterated to plant forestry, there were the extensive and perhaps best preserved archaeological remains of an early Iron Age farm anywhere in Britain located just above Black Burn. For some three hundred or so years either side of the start of the Christian era, there is evidence that a milder climate made it possible to grow a primitive form of barley here.  Later, in the medieval period, a bothy or sheiling called Tamshiel Rig was built near the site of the Iron Age farm. This provided shelter for those who tended the cattle that grazed here on the rich upland grasses each summer, part of a local agriculture based on transhumance. And to the east of the Rig, if local names are anything to go by, herds of swine once foraged for acorns in the oak woods and wallowed in the high mires above.

Why remember all this?

Because it tells us that present forms of land use are neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable. They are determined by the concerns of landowners and, as James Hunter indicates, there are always alternatives. That alternatives to the early modern culture of ‘improvement’ are now once again on the political agenda is clear from the Scottish Green Party’s policies.


A Borders cow and her calf (2017)

A Borders pig (2013)

Relevant Scottish Green Party policies: an indicative summary

 The Scottish Green Party’s manifesto commits it to working to ensure that Scotland’s land benefits the many and not the few, and that to establishing transparency as to exactly who owns Scotland. It also argues for a radical programme of land reform to transform the social, economic and environmental prospects for communities across Scotland. To achieve this, it is committed to supporting such proposals as providing agricultural tenants with a right to buy their farms in appropriate circumstances, and to ensuring that public subsidy is directed at those in most need of it and to support the expansion of new sustainable forestry. All of which goes against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

The Party is also committed to increasing local community control over public land and to working towards greater democratic control of the National Forest Estate and of property currently administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is similarly committed to promoting community agriculture, involving a step change in making land available for smallholdings, with a shift away from high-input agribusiness to low-carbon, organic farming.

This dovetails into  its proposal to support farming that provides public benefits, including rural jobs, water management, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and shorter food chains. It aims to foster links between communities, local farmers and food co-operatives. It also recognises the need to support new farmers from non-farming backgrounds in getting access to the land and finding opportunities to build experience in environmentally and economically sustainable farming. It is committed to supporting large scale ecological restoration projects of native flora and fauna, including the continued restoration of internationally- important peatlands. Again, these policies largely go against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

In principle at least, all these policies point to what could be a radical transformation of the Borders region, its agriculture, woodlands and wetlands.

A ‘wild’ speculation

So, what might an alternative Borders landscape look like? What, over and above Green policy, is needed to shift the Borders back to reflect something of the ‘unimproved’ landscape values that James Hunter identifies with a contemporary crofting culture, for example that of the Sleat peninsula of the Isle of Skye? The policies of the Green Party, if put into practice, would open the way for the establishment of a hybrid between traditional small-scale subsistence agriculture, alternative sustainable forestry practices, and the contemporary possibilities of tourism and other forms of income such as I’ve seen at first hand on Mull. However, the implementation of Green Party policies would require a radical political shift that would be resisted tooth and nail by those who own or are dependent on the big Borders estates. This suggests that there is little or no realistic possibility at present of reversing the depopulation of the Borders or of breaking the stranglehold of ‘subsidy junkies’; not just the owners of big farm estates and heavily subsidized grouse moors, but the many absentee landowners whose return on investment in commercial forestry depends on subsidy. However, we do not know what the impact of Brexit will be on the subsidy culture.

If I was asked to identify a point of leverage that might nonetheless help to move this process on, I would argue for the ‘re-wilding’ of the vast forestry monoculture of Kielder forest and points north of the Border. By this I do not mean aping a few wealthy individuals to import beavers or wolves onto their private estates. My sense of re-wilding owes more, as already suggested, to Don McKay’s understanding. Not, then, the re-introduction of a single large mammal but, as a start, small-scale human projects designed to reestablish areas of mixed forest, mire and moorland in the vast monocultural hinterlands of commercial Sitka spruce cultivation. Not, however, as stand-alone projects, but as part of a wider eco-tourism and cultural/environmental education initiative build in consultation with local people, particularly those young people anxious to remain and earn a living from the land.

The artist and environmental activist Cathy Fitzgerald has ably demonstrated, through her Hollywood Project, that it is both ecologically desirable and practically possible for an individual to learn how to gradually convert commercial forest monoculture to fully sustainable mixed woodland. What is needed is, above all, opportunity and a desire for environmental change. Given a multi-stranded approach that, for example, seeks to go beneath and beyond the macho reiving-related culture so heavily promoted across the Borders, it should be possible to start to construct a multi-stranded and locally grounded basis – looking both back to a ‘pre-improvement’ agricultural past and forward to new, technologically-enabled possibilities, a basis equivalent to James Hunter’s vision of renewal on Skye.






Standing Rock

When a fundamentalist terrorist organisation blows up centuries-old statues of the Buddha or ancient temples, there is outrage at both these acts of cultural vandalism and the hatred inculcated by the fundamentalism that inspires them. This outrage is then reflected in news reports and television debates, all predicated on the assumption that this is what an evil “other” does, that it reflects what differentiates “their” evil values from those of “our” good, civilized, democratic Western society. Unfortunately, ‘good, civilized, democratic Western society’ is now self-evidently a rapidly crumbling myth as it increasingly succumbs to the tides of popular demagogy. The events at Standing Rock are another, heartbreaking, example of “our” collective hypocrisy and self-delusion. When American business interests in the form of a pipeline company bulldoze sacred sites and ancient graves the day after tribal representatives hand a list of their locations to a federal court, there is no comparable reaction to the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Why is hinted at in the reasons given for that destruction by the man who ordered it.

“I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings — the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha’s destruction”.

We do not have to believe a word of this. Nor should we accept the reduction of the world to the either/or fundamentalist assumptions that the Taliban share with those who run Energy Transfer Partner (the company responsible for the pipeline). But it’s still possible to see that there is still a certain truth behind this statement. What increasingly characterises so-called “good, civilised, democratic Western society” is its own brand of secular, economic fundamentalism. This is a belief system that sanctions the most callous of people to take any action, so long as it makes money for the business involved and regardless of the negative impact that action may have on thousands of living beings, human or otherwise. While his critics might point out that Mullah Omar was only too happy to claim the moral high ground while simultaneously leading an organisation that, in the name of Islam, helped create the situation that led to thousands of Afghans dying of hunger, this doesn’t change the fact that the USA’s economic fundamentalism – or global capitalism if you prefer – is every bit as abhorrent as Mullah Omar’s religious version.

Standing Rock is just the latest incident in a long, dark history of racism and repression. In Britain, we are increasingly aware of the racism directed against black men, women, and children in the USA. However, the racism directed against the Native American population is actually worse. As I understand it, police in the USA kill more Native Americans per capita than any other racial group, while Native American children make up 70% of young people admitted to prison, despite representing only 1% of the population. It’s not hard to guess why this might be. Surely nobody likes to be reminded of the fact that they live on stolen land, that the ‘great American dream’ is predicated on acts of genocide or, perhaps most pertinent of all, that there are quite other ways to live together than those predicated on the environmental degradation that flows from an increasingly toxic culture of possessive individualism.

For those who want to put the State sanctioned violence happening at Standing Rock in its historical context, one place to start is at The Bdote Memory Map, put together by Allies: media/art with the support of the Minnesota Humanities Center.


What’s wrong with the ‘big research’ establishment? (Part two)

Further to my last post, Dr David Tuller has put up a new post –Trial By Error, Continued: The New FITNET Trial for Kids – which demonstrates, in considerable detail, the extent to which ‘top’ (Russell Group) Universities, supposedly ‘respectable’ academic journals, and even the BBC, have become complicit in the abuse of the protocols of proper scientific research for economic and reputational gain.


David Tuller has been at the forefront of a group of concerned scientists who have demonstrated the PACE trial authors weakened their outcome criteria mid-stream so as to be able to report dramatically better results for “improvement” (in The Lancet in 2011) and “recovery” (in Psychological Medicine in 2013). In lay terms, this effectively amounts to fraud. They hid this fraud for five years, aided and abetted by their employers, ‘top’ universities, who supported them in spurious arguments for refusing to provide the findings in line with the original protocol methods, or statistical analyses assessing the impact of the many mid-trial changes, or their actual trial data. This would be bad enough but, as Tuller points out, “the PACE authors and their allies continue, astonishingly, to defend the indefensible study, cite its findings approvingly, and push forward with ever more research into behavioral and cognitive interventions”. Yet in February, an open letter to The Lancet about the PACE trial, signed by forty-two experts, condemned its flaws as having “no place in published research.” It has subsequently been presented as an indicative study of bad science to graduate epidemiology students and at major scientific gatherings.

In short, the parties responsible for attempting to hide this fraud not only continue to deny their falsification, but are seeking to gain further funding to the tune of a million pounds on the back of it.


A central figure in all this is Dr. Esther Crawley, a professor of child health at the University of Bristol, who has been heavily supported by the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, despite her part in the PACE trial.  The SMC’s enthusiastic press briefing on her most recent enterprise generated widespread and enthusiastic news coverage from, among others, the BBC. Significantly, the SMC ensured that the BBC story, like other news reports, made no mention of the discrediting of the PACE trial findings. This came as no surprise to those of us who know the SCM’s history and bias. While touting itself as a neutral arbiter of science, the SCM is in reality deeply ideological, offered unqualified support for the type of flawed research presented by Dr. Esther Crawley. Prof. Simon Wessely, who I referred to in my last post, is a founder of the paradigm used by Dr. Crawley and a close colleague of the PACE authors. He is also on the SMC’s board of trustees. Furthermore, as David Tuller also points out, the journalist responsible for the BBC story, James Gallagher, is a member of the SMC’s advisory committee. In short the SMC, effectively a front organization, is once again guilty of hiding its substantive conflicts-of-interest. Yet this is only one aspect of the fraud that underpinned the continued ‘success’ of the people responsible for the PACE trial deception. One of many issues that have yet to be addressed is the fact that figures like Dr. Peter White, the lead PACE investigator, have major and undeclared conflicts of interest as scientists through their close links to Government and their support for its punitive policies towards the chronically sick.

This parlous situation has not gone entirely unchallenged. Quite apart from the efforts of individuals like David Tuller to defend the importance of good scientific practice against institutional greed and personal ambition, he notes that the Countess of Mar, a member of the House of Lords, filed a formal complaint with the BBC to protest its biased reporting. In this she indicates that the nature and tone of the coverage was such that it was clearly orchestrated to distract anti-PACE evidence which is now gaining world-wide attention, an action entirely in line with the usual approach of the SMC.

What’s the point of all this fraud?

Again, David Tuller puts his finger on this when he points out that Paul McCrone, a professor of health economics from King’s College London and a PACE co-author, attended the SMC’s briefing in support of Dr. Crawley. He writes:

“Dr. McCrone is serving as the chair of FITNET-NHS’ independent steering committee [the body overseeing the new research project being touted by Dr. Crawley] –another unsettling sign. As I have documented on Virology Blog, Dr. McCrone made false claims as lead author in a 2012 PLoS One paper—and those false claims allowed the PACE authors to declare that CBT and GET were cost-effective. They have routinely cited this fraudulent finding in promoting the therapies”.

In short, these people are not academics striving for an appropriate objectivity and rigour, but little better that State apparatchiks. They work for institutions who put income generation above all else and to support a Government incapable of addressing the needs of the sick and poor in our society because of an obsession with the economic bottom line that overrules all other considerations. In Brexit and the election of Donald Trump we see the triumph of a ‘post-truth’ politics. What the PACE trial fraud makes abundantly clear is that we now have a ‘post-truth’ academic/scientific institutional complex in abject complicity with that politics of untruth.



What’s wrong with the ‘big research’ establishment?

There’s no simple answer to this question. However, arguably it’s possible to get a taste of what is profoundly wrong with the current world of ‘big’ academic research – and not just medical research – by extrapolating from particular instances.

Recently, my daughter alerted me to what I think is a perfect example of such an instance.

Wikipedia describes Sir Simon Charles Wessely, FMedSci, as a British psychiatrist, professor of psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London and head of its department of psychological medicine, vice dean for academic psychiatry, teaching and training at the Institute of Psychiatry, as well as Director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research. He is also honorary consultant psychiatrist at King’s College Hospital and the Maudsley Hospital, as well as civilian consultant advisor in psychiatry to the British Army. He was knighted in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to military healthcare and to psychological medicine. In 2014 he was elected president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Doctor Wessely is clearly a man right at the top of his profession, a very senior academic, a man deeply embedded in the Establishment, and demonstrably a person of very considerable influence. Yet he has been more than happy to defend research by his associates that has been shown not only to be profoundly flawed but heavily compromised by the fact that some of the individuals involved can be shown to be implicated in major conflicts of interest based on their support for ideologically and economically driven Government policy. In this he has, of course, the support by such luminaries as the editor of The Lancet, which published and enthusiastically supported what has now been shown to be a deeply flawed study. In short, Wessely is aligned with and deeply implicated in an intellectual establishment that will apparently do and say anything to protect its own status and influence, regardless of the cost to those who are directly affected by the impact of discredited research such as the PACE Study or to the credibility of scientific research.

The introductory paragraph that follows is taken directly from an open letter to Doctor Wessely, posted by Steven Lubet on the web site The Faculty Lounge: Conversations about law, culture, and academia  entitled: An Open Letter to Dr. Simon Wessely, Defender of the PACE Study

Dear Dr. Wessely:

I was surprised to see the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists post a comment on a U.S. law blog.  I suppose this means that I have gotten your attention in the discussion of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), and that you feel compelled to respond to criticism of the PACE Study.  That is a good thing. Regrettably, your comment was petty and defensive, without engaging the actual issues relevant to PACE’s misleading conclusions.  I will not revisit the study’s many scientific and methodological flaws, which have been well addressed by Dr. Keith Geraghty and by Dr. David Tuller in his Virology Blog investigation. As you know, dozens of top scientists and clinicians have condemned the study in an open letter to The Lancet, stating that its flaws “have no place in published research.”

“Instead, I want to address your rhetoric, which is unworthy of a serious scholar….”.

If you have any interest in what is happening as a result of the money-fication of the academy and its ever-closer links with the mindset of big business and the government co-option of supposedly ‘objective’ research, I would urge you to read Steven Lubet’s Open Letter in full.



The politics of ‘flood defence’ – land management and social justice

“David Cameron has promised to invest £400 million a year on shoring up flood defences over the next six years; but official data shows spending was cut sharply at the start of the last parliament, from £360m in 2010-11, to less than £270m in 2012-13” (The Guardian 31.12.2015: 1). 

I do not believe that David Cameron’s Government will deliver on this statement but, be that as it may, there is still something pathetic about his pottering around flood-ravaged England dispensing platitudes about funding ‘flood defences’. It is pathetic because the Government is clinging to thinking about water management that it knows is practically ineffective, socially unworkable and,  additionally, defies expert opinion.

After the flooding of the Somerset Levels the Government, having consistently cut back funding to the Environment Agency tried, in desperation, to blame it for the consequences of the Government’s own policies. It was forced to back down and the ensuing climb-down involved consultation with a range of top water management experts. They told the Government that it needed to avoid the temptation to revert to dredging and start putting in place inclusive, catchment-wide thinking about the causes and prevention of flooding. (I’ve written about this before – see ‘Won’t Wash’ or: ‘high and dry thinking in a wide, wet, world’ The Government then proceeded to totally ignore this advice because it was going to be unpopular with regional Tory supporters.

Inclusive, catchment-wide thinking in relation to flooding is primarily about prevention rather than defence and, as such, requires fundamental changes in attitudes to rural governance. On Exmoor, for example, this thinking has meant reversing long-established assumptions – not least that water needs to be drained off the high moor as fast as possible (largely with a view to improving the land for grazing). The new policy reverses this, trying to ensure that the water stays on the moor for as long as possible and drains off it as slowly as possible, thus minimising both the risk of flooding downstream in the short term and substantially reducing the amount of soil washed down to silt up rivers in the middle to long term. This change in thinking is really only possible because since 1954 Exmoor has been a National Park, with its governance initially coordinated by local government and, since 1997, by a free standing Exmoor National Park Authority. What this means in practice is that this area of land is managed through a council made up of elected individuals who, in accordance with democratic convention, must act in the public interest and demonstrate that they will do so by publically declaring their personal and pecuniary interests. In short on Exmoor there is the possibility of genuine democratic debate as to the basis for its governance, thus distinguishing it sharply from the bulk of uplands in the UK. These largely remain in private ownership and are managed on the basis of the personal interests of individuals like the “exuberant hedgefund billionaire Crispin Odey”, singled out as a typical grouse moor owner by Telegraph reporter Clive Aslet 

This is where the issue of flooding and social justice start to converge. In 2014 the same Government that chose to ignore the call for inclusive, catchment-wide thinking in relation to the Somerset Levels almost doubled the subsidy to landowners who own grouse moors (from £30 to £56 per hectare). Unfortunately what is good in terms of raising grouse for shooting is bad for flood prevention. By increasing the grouse moor subsidy the Government has effectively subsidised miss-management of hundreds of thousands of hectares, both in terms of flood prevention and of opportunities to link good environmental governance and increased rural employment more generally. In short, the wealthy and privileged few are being rewarded for perpetuating a situation that brings misery to tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. (For a direct link between grouse moor management and flooding see George Monbiot’s recent blog entry). Misery that in this last round of flooding alone is estimated to be going to cost the country in excess of five billion pounds. My point is simple. David Cameron’s promised £2,400 million is not just about “shoring up” flood defences, its also about shoring up an exclusive and deeply anachronistic version of rural life and economy – one that the right to continue fox hunting and grouse shooting have come to symbolise in the minds of those who claim to defend ‘our’ rural way of life.

It will be blindingly obvious to anyone with any political sense that a Tory Government will not risk upsetting the wealthy landowning classes – whether in the name of flood prevention or any other eco-social concern. If they were to do so, we can be sure that organisations like the Countryside Alliance and Country Land and Business Association would do everything they can to defend the rural mythology that supports the status quo. (An example of such a defence is provided by Charles Clove in an article in praise of the ownership of rural land ownership (which, he suggests, was never “likely to attract capitalists who were not born into it as a way of life – unless for social reasons, or for sport” – a sport, however, where rich individuals from around the world pay something in the region of £140 for the privilege of killing two birds).

This leaves us with the practical question of what is to be done.

In my view there is little or no point in adopting a rigidly adversarial approach towards the rural establishment, not least because it is politically and economically very powerful (for good or ill), and often holds attitudes that are likely to harden further if blindly opposed. Nor is there any ‘magic bullet’ that can solve the complex of issues involved. The real solution to the worsening flooding in the UK lies in a whole cluster of changes, some of which have no obvious connection to water management.

These include the move to proportional representation that is necessary to restore something approaching a genuine democratic system of government to the UK, and without which serious land management reform will never take place. But it also requires serious work at many levels on ending the ignorance and calculated prejudice that is used to perpetuate the rural/urban divide – a divide that plays straight into the hands of those whose only real concern is the perpetuation of a status quo that, increasingly, has become both socially and environmentally toxic. This requires us to build dialogue and a degree of trust that, inevitably, with mean building new alliances and, inevitably, some compromise of long-cherished views on both sides of that divide. There are examples that point to new possibilities in this respect, for example The BurrenLIFE project – Farming for Conservation in the Burren in the west of Ireland. The aims of this project include: 

  • Implementing best-known management practices on 2,000ha of the Burren, including new feeding systems, redeployment of existing livestock and targeted scrub removal.
    Increasing understanding of the relationship between land management practices and the natural heritage of the Burren;
  • Developing new support mechanisms for the sustainable management of the Burren habitats;
  • Enhancing awareness and skills relating to the heritage of the Burren and its management through a range of practical initiatives aimed at empowering local communities;
  • Disseminating information relating to the agricultural management of areas of high nature and cultural conservation value through literature and the media.

 Indicatively, it may be that the second and last of these aims are the most pressing. Developing ‘new support mechanisms for … sustainable management’ in any rural area has to involve looking long and hard at its eco-economic viability, which in turn will often require developing forms of employment that, in order to genuinely ’empower local communities’, will challenge a rural status quo that still takes its right to pursue activities like grouse shooting as a given. That in turn raises important governance, educational and cultural issues, including that of raising external understanding and support during what will inevitably be periods of difficult transition in such communities. It is here that the dissemination of information (and not only that relating to the environmental and agricultural management of an area) informed by inclusive catchment thinking – particularly through literature, the arts and the media – comes into play.   




‘When Dracula is put in change of the blood banks….’


OK, so maybe it’s overstating things to suggest that putting Michael Gove in change of the British Justice system is like putting Dracula in change of blood banks. But then again maybe not by very much.

This is, after all, the man whose ideological interventions into the school system were the most blatantly reactionary and ill-informed imaginable. If we needed one single clear indication that Britain is now an ideologically-driven and increasingly authoritarian State, having Gove in charge of Justice is just that. More soberly, there are of course hard facts that support the claim that we are moving towards an undemocratic and increasingly authoritarian State. We now know from the Electoral Reform Society that the UK 2015 election has just delivered the least democratic electoral result in British history (at least since universal franchise), with almost 25% of elected MPs holding seats that they would not be eligible to occupy if we had a properly democratic system that genuinely represented the views of British voters.

So genuine Democrats in our increasingly undemocratic State now need to work for proportional representation. (Like 1.15 million others who voted Green, I am represented in Westminster by just one MP, despite the fact that in Great Britain Green voters represent about 10% of the total population eligible to vote). I have been following the debates on Facebook about this question of representation, but I would still argue that having to live with BMP or UKIP MPs in a government elected by a system of proportional representation is preferable to the politically numbing anachronism that is the current status quo.

However, as numerous observers have already noted, getting the entrenched political parties to agree to proportional representation (or, for that matter, newspaper proprietors to accept limits to their political influence) will be like getting turkeys to endorse Christmas. So the question each of us faces is obviously “What else can we do”? And, given my own interests and concerns, I have to ask what can those of us with high investment in cultural capital do?

I have written elsewhere in this blog about the importance of George Lakoff’s work. My thoughts there, and indeed in many other entries, amount to what I hope are real indications of what the arts need to do in order to contribute to the creation of a more ecosophical, more democratic, society. Like many others, I suspect, all I can do is keep working along these lines, with and for others, even when this requires living with the increasingly uncomfortable cognitive dissonances that are the inevitable consequence of accepting that we live in an unstable and often uncomfortable  polyverse. Given the consequences of the reaffirmation of the current order, particularly for those without their health, or the social and cultural capital to resist the tide of authoritarianism that is increasingly engulfing them, that’s maybe not too much to ask.

As if to round out this post, my friend David Walker-Barker has just added the image below to his Facebook page.


Winner takes all? Re-greening democracy to overcome the culture of possessive individualism


It’s hard to write anything positive in the wake of the election results this morning.

Although the final results were not all in as I write this post it’s very clear that, once again, a tired and morally bankrupt status quo has managed to perpetuate itself by playing on the fear and manufactured ignorance of a large part of the electorate. It no longer matters whether this manifests itself via the Conservative mainstream, its supposedly ‘down-to-earth’ UKIP shadow, or a Labour Party that has become little more than Conservativelite. What is very clear is that we are seeing the triumph of the culture of possessive individualism epitomised by Margaret Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” – an ideology that has managed to play on a multitude of fears to ensure that the rich will continue to get richer and the sick, poor, and the majority of young people will suffer further as a result.

To put this in perspective, it’s worth looking at the Executive Summary of a report published by Church Action on Poverty, The Trussell Trust and Oxfam in June 2014. This points out that, while the UK is the seventh richest country in the world it is increasingly deeply unequal. The richest 1% owns the same amount of wealth as 54% of the population. Furthermore the 1,000 richest people in the country saw a 100% increase in their wealth in the past five years and, of course, are now set to see this growth continue while the millions of families in the UK living below the breadline see their situation worsen. The report notes that Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty calculate that in excess of 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14, a 54% increase on 2012/13. Add to this that “more than half a million children in the UK are now living in families who are unable to provide a minimally acceptable diet” and you get a very clear sense of just what Margaret Thatcher’s much vaunted “return to Victorian values” has meant in practice.

In the run up to the election the Tories have argued that they have increased jobs, yet “despite their best efforts, many people cannot earn enough to live on”. The report points out that:

“UK food prices have increased by 43.5 per cent in the eight years to July 2013 and food expenditure as a proportion of total household expenditure has continued to rise. The UK has one of the highest levels of housing costs in Europe, while between 2010 and 2013 energy prices for households rose by 37 per cent. At the same time, low and stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hours contracts mean that for many low-income households, the money they are bringing home is less every month than their essential outgoings”.

The summary adds: “Evidence shows that changes to the social security system are a driver of food poverty. Cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK. These cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58% of sanctions decisions are successfully challenged”. This is both evidence of the punitive ideology driving Tory policy, and indicative of the fact that “many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own. The abolition of the Social Fund has prevented thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank network in the UK, estimates that 49 percent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

And the ideologically-driven war on the poor, sick, and marginalised that these facts and figures represent will now be intensified.

On the positive side, however, the election has meant that the Liberal Democrats have quite properly been wiped out as a credible political party. They have paid the price for the cynical betrayal of their electoral pledge on education last time round and for propping up of a Tory Government hell-bent on delivering a punitive austerity programme that is as unethical as it is unnecessary. As I write the Liberal Democrats have received just 1% of the total vote – in contrast to, for example, the anti-austerity Scottish National Party’s 9%. In this context it’s worth reflecting on comments made by Caroline Lucas, who won Brighton Pavilion for the Greens on an increased majority.  Ironically, in noting that “almost a million people voting Green” she is echoing UKIP’s Mark Reckless in pointing out that the results have shown “the political system in this country is broken”. She adds: “it’s ever clearer tonight that the time for electoral reform is long overdue, and it’s only proportional representation that will deliver a Parliament that is truly legitimate and better reflects the people it is meant to represent.”

So the choice is clear. If anything like a representative democracy is to be restored to these Isles, the unrepresentative system that sustains the current toxic status quo must be dismantled. But of course I’m hardly neutral in all this. My daughter – subject to a long-term chronic illness and denied medicines that would help her – is in the front line of the Tory’s ideological war.

For her and her friends the results of this election are not simply profoundly depressing, they are potentially lethal.

Disciplinarity and the political culture of exclusory thinking


Recently I attended an advisory meeting at the Royal West of England Academy. One item on the agenda in particular reminded me forcibly just how different my own ‘hybrid’ perspective is to that of the other RWAs who were gathered in that room. They are what we might call, for want of a better phrase, people who ‘profess’ to be artists in a sense I have not for many years – people whose identity is bound up closely with the notion of ‘being an artist’ and who are embedded in a world where a certain kind of networking is intrinsic; where sales, patronage, useful gallery connections, the power to influence opinion about other artists’ work, is the common currency. In such company I am something of a pauper, marginal; really an academic, no matter that I am also an RWA or that I too make and exhibit work. Put bluntly, we occupy different lifeworlds. I should add that this observation is in no sense a complaint or criticism. It evokes the simple fact of my multiplicity, something that I am happy to acknowledge.

Equally when I find myself at an event dominated by orthodox academics – particularly those in the Humanities – I experience something of the same sense of mild estrangement, of being on the outer margins of a particular and other professional world. One consequence of this is that when I write about the negative aspects of disciplinarity I often wonder whether I am overstating the case. Am I simply conflating the pedagogic emphasis on discipline-based education – on which our society’s concept of professionalism depends – with a very real and often deeply vicious realpolitik that thrives on disciplinary exclusivity because it suits me personally to do so? Or are there real and deep-seated structural connections between these two? And if the second is the case, what are those connections?

I think I have already answered this last question in an earlier post –Troubling ‘epistemological/methodological’ waters? (part two) – but I’ll paraphrase it again here. (The texts quoted are referenced there).

It has been persuasively argued that orthodox evaluations of research in the Arts and Humanities bear “no relation to how innovation and creativity occur” (Leach & Watson 2010: 7). Leach and Watson argue that the real value of such research is that it is: “carried by and in persons” as “expertise, as confidence, as understanding and orientation to issues, problems, concerns and opportunities, as tools and abilities” that reside in a “notion of responsiveness” (ibid: 7) and support and authorize those qualities in others. This understanding calls for a privileging of responsive listening over authoritative speaking so that this process is best understood as the conversational “aspect of citizenship”, one that privileges those “spaces and opportunities for discussion, argument, critique, reflection’ in which “collaboration” becomes a basis “for evaluation” (ibid: 3).

The importance of responsive listening is increasingly being argued by certain artists and ecologists (see, for example, Perdita Phillips: ‘Sounding and Thinking Like an Ecosystem’ in Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture , Vol. 27, 2013, p. 114-128), and has been argued philosophically by Gemma Corradi Fiumara in her The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening (1990). In the context of the link between disciplinary education and the realpolitik of exclusory thinking I would stress her insights into the academic habits embedded in: “the mechanism of ‘saying without listening’”, seen as having finally constituted itself as “a generalized form of domination and control” (1990:2). She addresses this situation in terms borrowed from Lakoff and Johnson, highlighting the nature of the metaphorical power embedded in language – in, for example, our concern to ‘win’ arguments as if they were wars (ibid: 108). I have taken this to square with Owain Jones’ insistence that we need to replace “established adversarial styles of academic argument with ‘a model of dialogical encounter’”, one based on the assumption that “the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding” (Jones 2008: 1607). Here ‘the other’ is anything from someone who does not share our professional or disciplinary ‘world’ to an animal or ecosystem. This seems to me to shift the emphasis away from disciplinary-based authority that is predicated on exclusive knowledge towards what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls ‘critical solicitude’. It is of course just this ‘critical solicitude’ that is lacking in many so-called ‘inter-disciplinary’ projects, where the parameters within which any exchange can take place have been pre-set by a dense weave of institutional presuppositions, all of which now ultimately relate to an economics designed to reinforce existing hierarchies and values. Research as ‘more of the same’, more or less. And all too often played out as just another example of careerism thinly disguised as ‘knowledge production’. It might seem that this is a matter of merely academic interest, until you see how it can play out in individual lives.

The real impact of the exclusory thinking disciplinarity breeds in a culture dominated by possessive individualism becomes apparent when you are privy to the horrors of medical and psychiatric abuse of vulnerable individuals by ‘health professionals’ and the manipulative realpolitik of associated researchers – all of them blind to the need for common human empathy by a professional arrogance and greed for power (and its financial rewards) underwritten by the authority derived from disciplinary exclusivity. (For those interested in the reality that lies behind this observation, see


The power politics that lie behind this blindness become visible in the extraordinary distortions and manipulations perpetuated by an organisation called the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London. In 2003 George Monbiot published an article on the group behind this entitled: Invasion of the Entryists, revealing the personal connections of a group that has “permeated a scientific establishment, always politically naïve”, and in consequence has “unwittingly…permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network” (see More recently Mićo Tatalović has reported on the same group (see and the supposedly impartial organisation it runs, pointing out that it has an agenda dominated by topics close to corporate, rather than public, interest and is heavily reliant on lobbyists, to the point where Connie St Louis, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and a senior lecturer at City University, London, states that she would close it down. Professor David Miller, a sociologist at the University of Bath, UK, makes it clear why St Louise would wish to do so. 


Miller’s analysis of the workings of the Centre showed that: “some 20 of the 100 most quoted experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society. Instead they were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups”, in particular those who favour the positions of the bioindustry and particular corporate sectors, and that it’s coverage reflects “the priorities of their funders”. This has direct political implications. Tatalović also references a paper in Journalism Studies by Andy Williams of Cardiff University on media representation of animal-human hybrid embryos in the United Kingdom between 2006 and 2008. This shows that a proposal that such research be banned “was opposed by what he called ‘a powerful coalition of scientific organisations’ coordinated by the SMC” and that a lobbying coalition was allowed to use the SMC’s media briefings to dominate media reports and so get the proposed ban dropped.

It is in instances like this that we see the price paid for a disciplinary exclusivity predicated on the authority to speak on behalf of others without any sense of obligation to listen responsively, an authority underwritten by a discipline-based education system with its “established adversarial styles of academic argument”, rather than on a multi-disciplinary exchange based on ‘a model of dialogical encounter’”(Jones 2008: 1607). Of course disciplinarily in itself does not exclude that encounter, but the academic and media realpolitik currently in place ensures that all the cards are stacked against this happening.

Deep mapping, conversation, and re-forging tools for thought

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Geraldine Finn reminds us that we’re “always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”. None-the-less we need categories to help us think. Deep mapping has been a valuable conceptual tool for me in this respect, albeit one I recently felt had been miss-used or blunted to the point of becoming almost meaningless. That, and more personal difficulties, prompted me to feel I should let go of it as a term. (I’ve noted the reasons in earlier blogs, so won’t go over my reasoning again here).

But I have now been movingly reminded that ‘deep mapping’ is, for me, rather more than just a useful (if slippery) concept. It’s also a shared praxis with a particular, albeit bifurcated and contested, history. At root the term names a shared and ongoing narrative, a story that many people have and are collectively making. One in which I’m still very much caught up. My friend and colleague Dr. Nessa Cronin, who works in the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI, Galway, has just reminded me of all this in the best possible way.

 Last year Nessa and I had shared thoughts about deep mapping when I was working at NUI, Galway, and we continued to do so by email after I’d left. She has recently completed work on a book chapter: ‘The Fineness of Things’: The Deep Mapping Projects of Tim Robinson’s Art and Writing, 1969 – 1972, and kindly sent me a draft to read. Given our exchanges I was curious to see what she’d written and was delighted by what I read. (The chapter will be published later this year by Manchester University Press in a book called: Unfolding the Landscape: Tim Robinson, Culture, and Environment, edited by Christine Cusick and Derek Gladwin. I’ll return to it again briefly later).

 However what I want to focus on here is not the virtues of that illuminating chapter about an exceptional man’s work, but rather my renewed sense of the whole mesh of exchanges that occasioned it and will now flow from it. Not simply for its own sake, but for what it reminds me about the real basis of shared scholarship and praxis. That mesh of exchanges includes those between Nessa, Tim Robinson himself, and his partner Mairéad; those between Nessa, myself and a host of other scholars and artists; but also, and critically, those between groups in communities in the west of Ireland, through Know your Place: A Community Mapping Workshop, run in conjunction with Lifeworlds: Space, Place and Irish Culture International Conference, Galway City Museum, 29th March 2014. This event, focused on devising a community-based mapping ‘toolkit’, centered on the mapping work and experience of the X-PO Mapping Group in Kilnaboy, County Clare, Mná Fiontracha Mapping Community Group in Árainn, and The Sliabh Aughty Community Group, with wider virtual communities, and with the workshop facilitators Dr. Ailbhe Murphy, Dr. Deirdre O’Mahony and Ms. Ann Lyons. All those exchanges will no doubt continue to contribute to this conversational weave, one in which deep mapping will be one, more or less useful, strand.

 It’s in this rich and particular context that Nessa wrote to me that she always tries to be mindful of the processes of thinking, reading, and writing as in many ways collaborative work. As she points out, this is the case even if the engagement is with thinkers long since died, yet still active in our thoughts and imaginings. Thinkers with whom we have imaginary conversations and debates around the key issues they thought and wrote about, just as we might with living thinkers. It is, she rightly insists, though all such conversations that our arguments “are tried, tested and forged over time”. Forged and, when they are chipped and blunted by careless or ignorant use, necessarily re-forged so as to help us to continue in our shared work. That’s one aspect of a community of scholar/teacher/practitioners – however on occasion fractious and divided – that helps to keep the purpose and value of listening and learning alive, despite all the dogmatic managerialism that is currently choking the vitality of our schools and universities.

 Cliff McLucas believed that deep mapping should be a conversation, and I now realize that it’s vitally important to hang onto that belief and, with it, to Nessa’s sense of the shared and ongoing nature of our conversational work. Questions of conceptual definition or miss-appropriation then become relatively minor and certainly secondary. At a difficult time in my life – not least because I’m about to turn sixty-five – I needed to be reminded that deep mapping is like a charged mycelial mesh, it’s energy flows where there are higher levels of conductivity to carry it’s charge, it jumps apparently impassible synapses and, of course, occasionally some of its energy will simply run to earth. That is not, however, a reason for not keeping faith with those conversations of which each of us is a strand.