Loggerhead Shrike

A pair of smallish birds that turned out to be loggerhead shrikes, also known as butcher birds, were sitting atop branches of the bare bushes as we walked around Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park in Houston. They seemed quite happy to be photographed.

Their hooked bill provides for disabling of prey, which they are also said to skewer on thorns or barbed wire.

Populations of this common American bird have been in steep decline since around the time of the introduction of chemical pesticides in the US.

 

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The money-go-round

Let’s get this straight.

  • Most money is created by banks as debt, i.e. ‘out of thin air’.
  • Banks ensure they keep plenty for themselves, the grandest buildings, the biggest salaries, huge bonuses.
  • Eventually they always lend too much, confidence declines, some bank(s) get(s) into trouble because there is a run on the bank, because the money doesn’t really exist.
  • So a bank or two fails, but is usually bailed out by governments.
  • So governments need to borrow a bit more from… banks.
  • And/or they take it from the people by ‘austerity’, reduced public services or additional taxation.
  • And they say there was too much debt, another way of saying it was the banks wot did it.
  • And the most egregious banking behaviour appears to be but lightly punished – the rewards appear to greatly outweigh the risks.

You couldn’t make it up!

There must be a better system. At least someone’s proposing solutions. See eg Positive Money.

 

Waxwing

waxwingsWalking by the bayou in Houston we often come across gangs of tens of small birds high up in the trees, silhouetted against the bright sky, even on a cloudy day. The initial reaction is that they’re impossible to successfully photograph with just a travel zoom (Panasonic TZ80). However, it’s amazing what you can do with maximum zoom, followed by a bit of image editing afterwards, mostly to crop and brighten up.

These are clearly waxwings, with characteristic crest and yellow-tipped tail – a very colourful perching bird, although you do not get much of an impression of that colour from the ground.

I even managed to get a reasonable crop of an individual bird showing more detail.

waxwing

Waxwings are also found in northern Europe, but not much in the UK.

Licence to Operate?

We see so many instances of large corporations acting against the public interest – tobacco, sugar, pesticides, pollution, Enron, subprime bank lending, plastics, enabling interference with elections, cartels, monopoly restriction of competition, and on and on.

Is it not time to require a licence for any corporation above a certain size to operate in a particular country, renewable say every five years, based on a transparent licensing process that is under democratic supervision?

Large businesses have privileges such as limited liability, generous bankruptcy laws and the ability to act trans-nationally and shift profits between countries; it is only reasonable to require them to not act against the interest of the societies in which they operate.

This provides a way for democratic politicians to take back control of forces that are, frankly, acting purely to make as much money as they can regardless of the impact on everyone else.

[US readers note licence = license.]

Black Bellied Whistling Duck

There is usually a gang of about 50 or so whistling ducks hanging around in Terry Hershey Park when we visit Houston. They are quite notable for their whistling habit.

This particular variant is called the black bellied whistling duck, for obvious reasons, found all year round in South East Texas.

whistling ducks
Geronimo! Whistling duck landing to join the gang.

Wikipedia lists 8 variants of whistling duck, or tree duck, and suggests that they are not actually true ducks but “a subfamily, Dendrocygninae, of the duck, goose and swan family”. They do look sort of intermediate between duck and goose.

American Robin

american robinIt must have been the unaccustomed cold February weather in Houston, 4°C with a strong windchill. This American Robin just stayed still as we walked by, allowing an easy photograph.

American_Robin-rangemapFrom the distribution map at the above reference, Houston is at the northerly end of this migratory bird’s winter range – so it may well have been struggling with the cold.

Like everything in the US, the American Robin is larger than the robins we have in the UK (European Robin). Although its red breast is remarkably similar, this American bird is actually not a robin in the European sense, but a member of the thrush family.

Distribution map by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons

Isaac Newton, Mystic

Isaac Newton is generally seen as a key founder of modern science, via his major work Principia Mathematica and theory of gravity – which led on to the theory of the ‘clockwork universe’ and much of the modern materialist/atheistic world view.

Newton was indeed a great polymath. What is less known is that his work was inspired by his studies of religion and mysticism, which were at least as important to him as the natural sciences. The idea of a clockwork universe would have been anathema to Newton, as would the idea of atheism.

This is all explained in Edi Bilimoria’s well-researched article ‘Newton’ in the current issue of Paradigm Explorer, magazine of the Scientific and Medical Network.

Interestingly, Newton’s gravity and its attraction were ‘a purely mathematical concept involving no consideration of real and primary physical or mechanical causes’ – which is why his book is about ‘mathematics’ and not ‘mechanics’.

As Edi explains, Newton’s religious ideas were well developed and have little in common with the Christianity of the time, being more related to the view that God is everywhere immanent and transcendent. Quoting Newton himself:

[God] endures forever , and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. In him are all things contained and moved…

Of course, many modern scientists have come to a similar viewpoint on the importance of religion. For example, that more modern polymath Albert Einstein:

“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Edi’s article is well worth reading.

Impressionist Peregrine

peregrine falcon 3

One of he highlights of our visit to WWT Slimbridge – a peregrine falcon landed to consume a bird (lapwing?) that it had just taken in flight. It was just visible to the naked eye and showed up reasonably in portable 8x binoculars, even better in the ‘scope someone had focused on it.

The best my Panasonic TZ80 travel zoom could do resulted in the rather pleasing (to my eye) impressionistic image above. There clearly aren’t enough pixels to give a decent photograph.

Some birders have answers to this. Some carry SLR cameras with huge telephoto lenses, others have a fair sized spotting telescope, possibly with a ‘digiscoping’ attachment to take photographs on their mobile/cell – both have to also cart around a tripod. Three big issues – cost, bulk and weight.

We all have to make our own compromises. Maybe I’ll stick to impressionistic photography. Or what about those bridge cameras…

Svalbard Barnacle Goose

svalbard geeseThere was a suggestion of haughtiness about these Svalbard Barnacle Geese, sitting apart from the other wildfowl and well away from the human visitors at WWT Slimbridge. Like many black-white birds their plumage is nevertheless striking.

These birds have been a focus of WWT since the 1950s, when their worldwide population had declined to 300, an alarming level. Peter Scott began an activity that became one of the world’s longest running migratory studies, and WWT has provided winter refuge for these birds, most notably at WWT Caerlaverock in the Solway Firth. In summer they live in the Svalbard Islands (includes Spitzbergen) between Norway and the Arctic. By 2010 there were 35,000 of these birds – a remarkable success story. (Other populations of barnacle geese migrate between Novaya Zemlya/Baltic states and Netherlands, and between Greenland and Scotland/Ireland.)

It shows that the worldwide efforts of conservation organisations can be vital in averting possible extinction of highly visible species. But the pressures are increasing, the number of threatened species inexorably rising, so ever more efforts are needed to maintain nature’s diversity in the face of the relentless onslaught of modern human life.

And what about the smaller organisms where there is no such highly visible focus? Amazingly, it is requiring almost superhuman efforts to even protect the vital bees from ‘the system’. We really do need a step change in our attitude to the natural world. We and it are one interrelated ecosystem – there is no backup.

The eye of the needle

The recent issue of Positive News contains an article on ‘The multimillionaire who gave his fortune away’. Daniel Garner was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but one day he realized that he was obese and unhappy. He gave away his money, moving from the ‘top of the top 1%’ to the ‘bottom 1%’, lost weight became part of a community and environment, and gained contentment. Some of his quotes are worth repeating:

“My life is [now] so much richer in every single way because I’m connected to life itself: to the people and to the environment around me… I’m truly alive.”

“It’s not just dollars that define wealth: it’s also power, linkages and the ability to make much more money. You end up forming a cohort of other extremely wealthy people and become tremendously disconnected from society.”

“When I was incredibly rich, my heart was completely closed to everyone around me. How can you maintain wealth when you see someone who’s starving and eating out of a garbage can…”

Yes there are so many stories we hear of rich and powerful people who exploit others and care little for those around them. Yet also, some extremely rich people find solace and connection through philanthropy that channels their riches to benefit others.

Eye_of_the_Needle_Black_Hills_1987
Eye of the Needle, South Dakota, US

No, I’m not writing this post to knock the rich, just to highlight that large amounts of money do not bring fulfilment, but do bring incredible responsibility for wise use of that money. After all, most of us in the West are rich by the standards of most developing countries. Are we using that richness wisely, and are we truly fulfilled?

Jesus once said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24, King James). He wasn’t joking.

Featured image courtesy Ron Clausen via Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Attention and Mindfulness

A 3-year-old is contented playing with a toy. This all-absorbing activity goes on for a minute or two, and then attention moves onto something else, which may or may not then provide contentment.

An 8-year-old loves Lego and craft projects, also getting totally absorbed. Yet at times she may have a frown on her face, as some thought crosses her mind during the activity. It may be the worry monster. Monkey mind has usurped her attention, disturbing her contentment. Do we not all have this battle with monkey mind?

At age very much more, I absent-mindedly carry a cup of coffee up the stairs to my study, just as most days. One day, my slipper catches a step and a few drops are spilled onto the stair carpet, followed by panic, wetting, rubbing and blotting to try to avoid consequent stains. Since then, I strive to always carry cups of drink in full mindfulness, when there is no chance of spillage.

So mindfulness can be very beneficial. But then comes the beautiful sunny day when I congratulate myself on just how mindful I am being, and immediately trip on the pavement. It’s not easy.

When driving a car, we adults are very much like grandson absorbed in the act, yet we are required to perform the seemingly superhuman task of holding full mindful attention for an hour or two until the next break. If the worry monster finds space our driving is probably impaired. But there is that wonderful feature of humans called auto-pilot, where ‘I’ continue driving the car while speaking to a passenger, worrying or pondering on some problem – just as I carried the coffee upstairs while thinking of other things.

The scary thing is when you ‘wake up’ and realise that you’ve been absorbed in thought for the last mile or so of motorway, while ‘you’ were driving the car on auto-pilot. Who the hell was in charge? And did it matter?

If you really want to know more about, and develop, your powers of attention, try B. Alan Wallace’s book ‘The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind’, which could take you all the way to Shamatha of the Buddhist tradition.

Featured image from Truck clipart.

 

Avocet

I loved watching these beautiful avocets, with their upturned beaks, at WWT Slimbridge the other day. This group tended to move together, creating constantly changing striking patterns, such as that above.

Avocets represent another UK bird conservation success story. These waders were on the verge of extinction in 19th century UK, as the wetlands that formed their habitat had mostly been drained. Since WW2 they have recovered significantly, much helped by the conservation efforts of organisations such as RSPB and WWT. Indeed this attractive bird was adopted as an emblem by the RSPB.

Tufted Duck

tufted duck 1At WWT Slimbridge the other day there was a largish population of tufted ducks. These ducks are pretty common in the UK, easily identified by the characteristic white side and the tuft at the back of the head. The female is much less distinctive, so is less easy to identify (see above link).

The pale blue-grey beak adds an attractive touch of colour to the otherwise essentially monochrome male. In the right light, there is also a suggestion of green on the head. You can see this and the tuft better in the following.

tufted tuft

 

James Robertson

james-robertsonI was sorry to learn that James Robertson is to no longer produce his regular newsletter or maintain his website, This is a great shame, but one can well understand it at the age of 89.

I first came across James at Schumacher Lectures in Bristol, maybe in the 1980s, and was inspired by his ideas on economics and the money system, which originated in a career at times closely associated with UK governance. This inspiration has continued over the years since then, in his articles, books, talks, seminars and then his regular newsletters – Turning Point 2000 up to the turn of the millennium, and his regular email newsletter since then.

James’s ideas deserve to be more widely known. I won’t try to summarise; the following from the front page of his website gives a good idea. This truly does indicate a necessary component of a New Renaissance, as indeed James said in his Knutsford Lecture in the 1990s.Read More »

The Hidden Life of Trees

hidden life of treesPeter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is one of those books that change the way you look at things – the world of trees and forests in particular.

Starting off as a conventional forester, he gradually became aware of the real life that was going on around him, rather than just seeing the trees as objects to be managed.

Trees are complex organisms that live in families, nurture each other, respond to their environment, live in symbiosis with other beings, have a circulation and a food system, move in response to environmental change – indeed they are complex social organisms just as we are. It’s just that their timescales are different – much more extended than ours, just as our timescales are much more extended than those of the mayfly.

The timescale for forests and their tree families measures in the hundreds and thousands of years. When we destroy an ancient forest, we are destroying an ecosystem that has taken many hundreds of years to establish. Most ancient forest in Europe is already destroyed through man’s ignorance, so it is imperative to retain those that remain – they are literally irreplaceable. New planting starts a new process of building up an ecosystem, but who knows if the insects, microorganisms and fungi (let alone the fauna) will ever re-establish themselves.

Wohlleben explains how forests act as a water pump, creating the clouds that give rain to landlocked interiors of continents. Without trees there would be far more desert.

Forests have a calming effect on weather, soak up heavy rains avoiding flooding, absorb masses of carbon dioxide (particularly the older trees), provide the environment for massive biodiversity… There are so many benefits.

And then there are the benefits of simply walking in the forest. Most of us have experienced its wonderful calming effect at some point. I guess that’s because at some level we can sense the majestic life in these great beings.

As more and more virgin forests across the world are destroyed by commercial interests, such as for growing palm oil or animal food, the loss and potential dangers are surely clear. Climate change demands that we need more forest cover, not less, to help alleviate the increase in CO2 and its effects.

The book contains a lot more insights than my brief comments suggest. Do read it. Superb!

Light and Dark

chair legsThe low winter sun lights up one of these chair legs in our kitchen. Just for a few minutes. Time for a quick shot, then gone.

Two identical chair legs look so different, depending on the light.

Just as we see others, particularly those we do not agree with, ‘in a different light’. Republican vs Democrat, Conservative vs Labour, Christian vs Moslem, Brexit vs Remain, White vs Black, ourself vs someone who wronged us…

At heart, we’re all the same, and the psychological task of life is the same, to first cultivate, then grow beyond, ego… Living in community. Seeing the positive in others, as well as their ignorance. The light and the dark.

Growth vs Sustainability

It is one of the main dilemmas of our time. Economic growth is seen by governments and people as essential. If the economy falters then there is unrest and governments get thrown out.

Yet economic growth is creating unsustainable demands on the ecosystem – pollution, global warming, resource depletion, and so on. The two do not appear to be reconcilable. We know all this.

There has to come a solution. If we leave it to the earth’s natural systems, we may well not like the result. We are getting a taste, as extreme weather events become more common, plastic pollution becomes increasingly pervasive, species extinctions accelerate. Refugee crises, population migrations and epidemics are likely to get much worse.

So it’s important to consider possible solutions. One is put forward by Positive Money in their excellent research paper Escaping Growth Dependency, just published. They argue that the debt-based money system is a major factor driving the growth imperative, and reform of this money system is essential as part of the solution.

They propose adding a new tool to the Central Bank’s toolkit: ‘sovereign money creation’, and preventing banks from creating money altogether. Thus money as means of payment is decoupled from money as a source of credit.

The paper suggests that such a change could ‘open the door to a transition to a sustainable economy’. I’m all for that!

 

 

Vision

“Without Vision the People Perish…”

Proverbs 29:18 King James Version

The above quote was one of the inspirations behind our original lectures on Visions of a New Renaissance, and it remains just as important today.

It strikes a particular chord with me having just watched the gripping film Darkest Hour, which portrays Winston Churchill working his way towards the vision that he ultimately expressed to parliament and the British people, inspiring them to resist the Nazi tyranny.

Cassandra Vieten of IONS has published an excellent post Creating an Inspiring Vision for Our Future, which indicates the importance of a vision that will inspire people on the way forward to a better world. She refers to the example of Dr Martin Luther King, whose inspiration continues to motivate people today. Vieten says

In his book “Stride Toward Freedom,” King noted that the outcome of nonviolent resistance was the Beloved Community – not an idealistic utopia free from conflict, but a community ruled by agape which he described as “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,” or an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative.” He said

“It is this type of spirit, and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

In these divided Brexit / Trump times, how the UK and US need to transform the current deep gloom of the divisive old age into the ‘exuberant gladness of a new age’. How could it be other than a vision based on agape?