Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Nature Therapy Is a Privilege

by Julie Beck, CityLab: https://www.citylab.com/environment/2017/06/how-to-harness-natures-healing-power/531453/

I am in the mountains and they are healing me. It is like the miracle pool at Lourdes except it’s not a miracle and we’re not at Lourdes. We’re at Maroon Bells, which depending on which website you ask, are the most photographed mountains in Aspen, in Colorado, or in North America. I photograph them some more, to help them hold onto their title.

The mountains, and their attendant plant life and water features, are helping to lower my blood pressure, and my stress hormones, and keeping my heart rate variability normal. These are just some of the health benefits of spending time in nature that studies have found in recent years. But this beautiful, soothing environment is fairly remote—its nearest neighbor is the wealthy enclave of Aspen. Back home, I don’t see anything like this on a regular basis. And neither do most people.

“Intuitively, many of us believe this to be true, that we feel better in nature. But it’s only recently that we’ve been able to see biomarkers of this change,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix. She is a member of the panel that is currently holding forth on nature’s health benefits, fittingly, in an outdoor amphitheater right by the Bells, as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

As the empirical evidence mounts, nature-as-medical-treatment is catching on. “Ecotherapy” is a burgeoning field, and some doctors even write prescriptions for time spent in parks, as my colleague James Hamblin wrote in 2015.

In some ways, this is a return to an 18th- and 19th-century understanding of what the body needs. Old-timey therapies that suggested patients go for walks outside or “take in the sea air” were on to something. The pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale advocated strongly that patients be exposed to fresh air and sunlight. As she wrote in her 1859 Notes on Nursing, it is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light; that, after a close room, what hurts them most is a dark room. And that it is not only light but direct sun-light they want… People think the effect is upon the spirits only. This is by no means the case…Without going into any scientific exposition we must admit that light has quite as real and tangible effects upon the human body.

The light certainly feels tangible here, snuggled in the bosom of the Rockies. There are still stripes of snow on the mountains, which are peppered here and there with fistfuls of pipe-cleaner pine trees. There is a sparkling lake in the valley, and the rushing sound of a hidden waterfall off to our right. The morning mountain air is thin and cold, but fresh, and the smell of pine is so strong that it seems fake. It smells like someone has strapped a got-dang Yankee Candle to my nose. I discreetly sniff the woman next to me to be sure she’s not just wearing a really strong perfume.

All of this is distracting, Williams says, from any ruminative, negative thoughts I might otherwise be having. She references a study that had people take a 90-minute walk either in a natural environment, or in an urban environment, scanning their brains before and after. The people who went on a nature stroll had decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with rumination—the sort of negative thoughts that you return to over and over, picking at a scab. And the participants reported feeling better, as well.

Williams says she copied Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” axiom for her own prescription: “Go outside, go often, go with friends, or not.”

But the problem is that this rash of research showing how wonderful nature is for you is coinciding with a decrease in the amount of time people actually spend in nature. “Our culture tells you that watching Netflix or eating ice cream will make you feel great, and those things are great, but many of us in our society are very disconnected from nature,” Williams says.

A 2008 study found that the percent of Americans who participate in outside activities like camping, fishing, or hunting has been decreasing by about 1 percent a year since the late 1980s. A survey done in the U.K. found that 70 percent of adults remembered doing most of their “adventurous play” outside, while only 29 percent of kids said the same. And, at least in 2001, when the Environmental Protection Agency did its National Human Activity Pattern Survey, adults spent 87 percent of their time indoors in buildings, and another 6 percent of their time in vehicles.

“That goes to this issue of who has access to nature, and who can gain access,” says Michael Dorsey, the senior program officer for sustainability at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “The decline is differential, based on socioeconomic differences, on race, and on class.” As more people move to urban areas, nature gets farther away. And it’s easier to get to the nature if you have the money to pay for the gas to drive there, for the park entrance fee, for camping gear. When coming up with prescriptions for nature, Dorsey says, “we also have to do that in a political economic context.”

That means making nature available for people who can’t trek to the mountains—making it part of people’s day to day lives. Williams brings up Frederick Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. “His greatest lasting legacy,” she says, “is what he understood about how human communities really need nature, not just to make us feel better. We need these green spaces for democracy. It becomes a ground for the mixing of different classes, different ethnicities. It wasn’t just about the aesthetics—it was about what it meant for the way we socialize with each other, the way we live together.”

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Julie Beck
Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health and psychology.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Psycho-Geography: a way to delve into the soul of a city

File 20170608 24140 qoa3eb
A stroll through Sydney’s Marks Park and the nearby tourist attraction Sculptures by the Sea is a different experience if one knows the area’s brutal history. Leah-Anne Thompson from www.shutterstock.com

Siobhan Lyons, Macquarie University

Psychogeography, as the term suggests, is the intersection of psychology and geography. It focuses on our psychological experiences of the city, and reveals or illuminates forgotten, discarded, or marginalised aspects of the urban environment.

Both the theory and practice of psychogeography have been around since 1955, when French theorist Guy Debord coined the term. While it emerged from the Situationist International movement in France, the practice has far-reaching implications. It’s relevant, for instance, in contemporary Sydney.
Psychogeographers advocate the act of becoming lost in the city. This is done through the dérive, or “drift”.

Because purposeful walking has an agenda, we do not adequately absorb certain aspects of the urban world. This is why the drift is essential to psychogeography; it better connects walkers to the city.

Psychogeographers idolise the flâneur, a figure conceived in 19th-century France by Charles Baudelaire and popularised in academia by Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. A romantic stroller, the flâneur wandered about the streets, with no clear purpose other than to wander.

In his 2013 Paris Review article, In Praise of the Flâneur, Bijan Stephen observes that the use of the flâneur “as a vehicle for the examination of the conditions of modernity” fell out of favour in the ensuing decades. Stephen poses the question:
But as we grow inexorably busier – due in large part to the influence of technology – might flânerie be due for a revival?

Walking as an act of insurgency

The revival had already begun, thanks to popular contemporary psychogeographers, notably Iain Sinclair and Will Self (whose book Psychogeography was published ten years ago).

In his book London Orbital, Iain Sinclair describes a walk around the M25 and the “unloved outskirts of the city”. He observes:
I had to walk around London’s orbital motorway; not on it, but within what the Highways Agency calls the ‘acoustic footprints’. The soundstream. Road has replaced river. The M25 does the job of the weary Thames, shifting contraband, legal and illegal cargoes, offering a picturesque backdrop to piracy of every stamp.
Sinclair describes his walk as having a “ritual purpose” to “exorcise the unthinking malignancy of the Dome, to celebrate the sprawl of London”. He also describes walking as a virtue.

Self sees walking as “a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum”. He describes the solitary walker as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveller”.

Psychogeography is therefore useful in showing that walking is not only an art form in itself. It is also crucial in understanding the complication between the histories and myths of urban landscapes.

A stroll through the city can take the flâneur to unexpected places, past and present. belpo/flickr, CC BY-NC

Psychogeography in Sydney

Sydney is already notable for being a walking city, and certain people are eager to explore its psychogeographical potential.

Current Sydney “psychogeographical” practitioners and/or theorists include Vanessa Berry, Ian Collinson and Peter Doyle. Berry’s blog Mirror Sydney focuses on her psychogeographical adventures in Sydney.

In her wanderings around places such as St Peters, Tempe, Leichhardt, Sydenham and Hornsby, her practice of psychogeography “re-enchants” places that, she says, “are overlooked or not usually subjects for attention”.
She says:
Some of the Sydney places I have most enjoyed writing [about] are ones from the recent past that have now fallen into disuse or disrepair, but are still present in the urban environment.
In April 2017, Berry hosted the Sydney Lost and Found bus tour with Sydney Living Museums.
Psychogeography has other uses besides drifting or re-enchanting marginalised spaces. It has a historical use as well. In cases where the landscape has been affected by crime or suffering, psychogeographic readings are especially poignant.

David Brown, of UNSW, for example, provides a psychogeographic reading of a walk from Maroubra Beach to Bondi and its criminal history. Walking to Marks Park in Bondi, the scene of a series of homophobic attacks in the 1980s, which went largely unsolved, Brown observes:
The everyday acts of walking and talking while passing through a ‘landscape’ serve to constitute a criminology of everyday life, illustrating the way in which a consciousness of crime, crime sites, analyses and theories permeates the ways a ‘tourist trail’ might be experienced and seen, myths made and histories forged.
The fact that the park sits near the Sculptures by the Sea – a much-hyped tourist destination in Bondi since 1997 – is significant; it seems to trivialise the brutal history of the area, a history written over and unnoticed by tourists, and forgotten by locals.

Traversing the memory divide

University of Melbourne Professor Maria Tumarkin describes this in terms of “traumascapes”. A traumascape is a “distinctive category of places transformed physically and psychically by suffering, part of a scar tissue that stretches across the world”.

Over time, a huge waste mound became a natural-looking hill, the Beckton Alps, which were even the site of a short-lived ski slope. Jeff Van Campen/flickr, CC BY-NC

Similarly, Sinclair talks of what he calls “Obscenery”, a neologism referring to negative transitions in the urban landscape. He uses it in reference to a garbage heap that became reconstructed as a recreational space, known as Beckton Alps. The fact that visitors did not know they were standing on a previous garbage waste site fascinated Sinclair.

The transition of a space from one use to another undergirds much of psychogeography’s preoccupation; the notion of a palimpsest – an object or piece of writing with new material superimposed over earlier writings – is particularly important.

In his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Andreas Huyssen discusses the increasing phenomenon of selective memory in cities that confronted trauma (Berlin, New York, etc).

He talks specifically of “Berlin as palimpsest”. He sees Berlin as a “disparate city-text that is being rewritten while earlier texts are preserved, traces restored, erasures documented”. He describes the city as a text haunted by its past and present negotiations with its Nazi and Communist history.
The ConversationThis is what makes psychogeography a particularly useful critique beyond mere urban re-enchantment. Psychogeography thrives as an interrogation of space and history; it compels us to abandon – at least temporarily – our ordinary conceptions of the face value of a location, so that we may question its mercurial history.

Siobhan Lyons, Scholar in Media and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Political Intents: How Protest Camps are Reviving Social Movements Around the World

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Tent city. かがみ~/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Fabian Frenzel, University of Leicester

The business of government is typically carried out by representatives in parliament, at local town halls or in the cabinet office, but make no mistake: politics is done everywhere, by everyone. Around the world, social and protest movements empower people to push for change from outside of established institutions. In recent years, another form of protest has been added to the familiar repertoire of community activism, marches of protest and social media campaigns: the protest camp.

From Tahrir Square in Cairo, Puerto del Sol in Madrid and Syntagma Square in Athens to New York’s Wall Street, central squares in major cities across the US and Saint Paul’s cathedral in London, urban protest camps featured prominently in the wave of uprisings that have swept the world since 2011. While protesters’ grievances and demands differed from place to place, research from around the world has found that the protest camps themselves showed striking similarities.

Amid the assembly of tents, each of these camps featured common spaces such as kitchens, libraries, learning centres, crèches and places of worship. Places of democratic deliberation and assemblies for collective discussion and decision-making were central to all camps. They often had media centres, where journalists could report about the camp, while participants produced their own media, including newspapers, radio shows and leaflets, as well as spreading their message using social media.

Putting up a fight

The camps were important symbols of protest in their own right, but out of the camps many more protest actions occurred; people started marches from the camps and retreated there after them.

Within the camps, demonstrators were trained in techniques that would allow them to overcome hostile and aggressive policing. There, they could also find medical and psychological care, if they had been injured or traumatised during demonstrations.

While protest camps occur in diverse forms right across the world, each one empowers people to stay together for longer periods of time; to eat, sleep and share daily routines with fellow protesters. By providing living spaces and catering for people’s needs as they arise, protest camps differ from most other forms of protest action. They can often feel like a second home for demonstrators.

Protest camps also provide spaces to experiment with the way our daily lives are organised. In these places, political change in the form of direct democracy or gender equality are not only issued as demands by protesters – they can also be put into practice within the space of the camp.

Mounting a challenge

Since 2011, urban protest camps have regularly sprung up in cities across the world. Over that time, it has become clear that camps can enable broader political challenges, even if they initially focus on a single aim: the Kiev Maidan camp in the winter of 2013-14 and the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement both shook the political foundations of the countries where they occurred.

Similarly, the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul was sparked by concerns about plans to remove the green space in the heart of the city. But over time, the protests came to challenge the rule of the AKP party and its leader Erdoğan throughout the whole country. The camp helped to forge a coalition of diverse opposition groups, who historically had very little in common.

There are also numerous camps that occur on a smaller scale and address specific issues and demands, rather than initiating a wholesale questioning of the political system. Take, for example, the small camps which have occurred in response to Iceland’s Hydropower Expansion Plans since the mid-2000s.

Old dog, new tricks

Protest camps are not a new invention. Long before the Occupy movement camped out at Saint Paul’s, people gathered in camps to protest against nuclear weapons, road and infrastructure projects and war. In the 1980s, peace camps such as Greenham Common and Faslane in Scotland brought people to the gates of military facilities where nuclear weapons were kept, and formed the basis for regular blockades and protests at their gates.

Living history: a caravan from Faslane in the 1980s, at Glasgow’s Riverside Museum. Michel Curi/Flickr, CC BY

They continued for an extraordinarily long time: Greenham Common lasted for 20 years and the camp at Faslane – near the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons base – celebrates its 35th birthday this year.

Yet over the past decade, activists have professionalised the camp as a form of protest, both internationally and in the UK. A broad movement against climate change, which formed in 2005, chose the protest camp as its main organisational form. Annual climate camps took place from 2006 to 2010, organised with an increasing level of sophistication and routine. More recently, protest camps against pipelines in North America – including the one against the North Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL) – have brought together concerns about climate change with indigenous rights issues.

Climate camps made huge efforts to be radically democratic and ecological spaces. From plenary discussions, shared rotas for the kitchen, renewable energy supplies and compost toilets, the camps attempted to prefigure how life could be in a more just and sustainable society. By turning protest camps into temporary homes, demonstrators often form close-knit communities which sometimes helps them to network and organise in the future.

The ConversationIn a world where political figures like US president Trump seem keen to bypass democratic deliberation through populism, there is a desire to recreate spaces of political deliberation and community, while realising the importance of face-to-face interaction in building viable alternatives to the status quo. Protest camps are likely to form a crucial part in this endeavour.

Fabian Frenzel, Lecturer in the Political Economy of Organisation, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Case for the Disconnected Commute

A man cycling past chat boxes, wi-fi symbols, and email envelopes
Biking to Work (M McVeigh/CityLab)


CityLab: https://www.citylab.com/navigator/2017/05/the-disconnected-commute/528351/

The best thing about biking to work has nothing to do with exercise, the environment, or saving money. It’s all about the chance to unplug.

Since moving to Washington, D.C., six years ago, there’s one question I know I’ll hear when I go home to sprawling suburban Phoenix: “So, you don’t have a car?”

For five years, I commuted almost exclusively by metro. More times than I can count, when I’ve said this to friends and family back home, they’d respond with some comment about how nice it must be to get some work done on my way into the office.

Sure, when I need to field some emails while standing on the train, it is nice. Mostly, though, I spend that time mainlining media: shuffling through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and more or less All The News. My former life as a car commuter was great for listening to music; this new one was perfect for the golden age of connectivity. But then I fell in love with its exact opposite: a mode of transportation that wouldn’t allow me to do anything but commute.

I finally committed to becoming a bike commuter when the D.C. metro hit rock bottom last year. I told myself I was doing it for the normal reasons: it’s healthier, cheaper, and greener. I’m also lucky to have decent cycling infrastructure in my neighborhood, so why not use it?

These were compelling enough reasons to test the waters. I fixed up my bike, took a deep breath, and prepared for battle with every driver on the road. Deep down, I thought I would revert back—to the path of least resistance—soon enough. For a while, a powerful voice in my head would say that I wasn’t prepared to sweat this morning, or I didn’t have it in me to carry the bike down to the street, or, yeah, I’d rather just do some work on my way to work.

Before I realized it, though, it became the best part of my morning routine. Without thinking, I’d grab my helmet, lug my bike down the 10 steps that once seemed insurmountable, and ride away. More than anything, I was drawn to the fact that, for 30 whole minutes, my brain would be blissfully free from the demands of glowing rectangles perfectly optimized to lure me in and jam my face with #content.

Think about the last time you spent half a waking hour without a ding, or a buzz, or a voice in your ear. In the attention economy, this constant distraction has become perfectly normal. Last year, Microsoft researchers found that the average human attention span has fallen to just eight seconds, meaning we’re apparently more distractible than goldfish (at least until they get their own iPhones). According to The Atlantic, “one team of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.” It may sound crazy, but you get it, right?

At first, I felt this anxiety, too. I’d imagine phantom buzzes in my pocket and check to make sure I didn’t miss an email before the light turned green. I considered getting a smartwatch as a handy way to keep up with notifications on my commute. And then it hit me: Just ignore the damn thing! When I did, I caught my mind wandering, and—it’s almost embarrassing to admit—had to fight the urge to cut it off with a quick hit of lit pixel. It was an exercise in its own right, and a difficult one. But I’ve since figured out how to be a refreshing mix of bored, contemplative, and daydreamy for those 30 minutes on both ends of the workday, and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who thinks that sounds like a nightmare.

Smartphone addiction is real not only because it’s engineered that way, but because it’s easy. Whether you’re walking down the street, boarding the subway, or waiting for the bus, why not take a second to text a friend? If you’re driving your car or surrounded by others on public transit, why not fire up your best playlist or work through your podcast queue? Slate’s Torie Bosch has written about fighting to keep the shower as the last media-free zone. I would add that the bike, if you work for it, provides the last media-free commute.

Sure, it’s possible to stay glued to your phone on a bike, but you have to be intentional about it. (My colleague Andrew Small makes the case for biking with a boombox, for example.) You also have to understand when you’re ceding some amount of personal safety for the sake of keeping your headphones on. People can (and do) debate if that’s actually unsafe. Either way, I say it cancels out the best benefit of cycling.
Perhaps Talking Heads frontman David Byrne said it best in his rumination on cycling in The Guardian: “Cycling can be lonely, but in a good way. It gives you a moment to breathe and think, and get away from what you're working on.” Yes, even on your way to work.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What Keeps Me Going?

Rob Hopkins
Permaculture Magazine recently asked me to write something about how I maintain momentum and energy over time in dark and difficult times.  The piece appears in the latest edition, available here, alongside another article about what a truly local beer might look like.  
There are a few things that keep me going through these difficult times and which keep me focused on what I can do to help.  The first is that you never know where the tipping points are.  You never know who will see a project you are doing and be inspired, who might hear the story of what you’re doing, and where it might go.  One Transition group in Berlin planted 26 fruit trees in their local park.  A year later their Council passed a law to say all new Council landscaping had to be edible species.  Things can tip, and they do so unpredictably.
Another is that we have no idea how things are going to turn out.  Remarkable things have happened in the past, and this is our moment to step up and do remarkable things.  The fact that we don’t know how it’s going to turn out is no reason not to dedicate our lives to ambitious change.  Indeed it makes it all the more intriguing!
The third is that things are moving so fast.  In my experience, most of the doors that I imagine to be closed to me actually, when I push them, tend to swing open.  Businesses, Councils, individuals, are hungry for this stuff in a way they never were before.  You’re not a freak any more (well, you may be, but in this context you’re not…).
I try very hard to put firebreaks into my life.  My family time, time with my kids, evenings, weekends, are ring-fenced and sacrosanct.  I try to have measures in place to minimise the risk of burnout, being open to seeking support and talking to someone if I feel I am at risk of it.  I make time to read, to cook good food, to go away with my wife sometimes, to draw, paint, garden, spend time with friends.  If we are burnt out, exhausted, stressed, an absent parent, then we are not in service to the work we are doing.  Seek, and insist upon, balance.
I have also come to also have a deep respect for the need to develop a healthy group culture in projects I am part of.  Groups that can be effective because they have developed a level of trust and shared culture through good and effective facilitation.  I have been deeply fortunate to work in Transition Network, an organisation which has placed such emphasis on building a healthy group culture and on good process.  It sustains me on a deep level to work with people with whom I have, over time, developed such a deep sense of trust.
I have the huge pleasure to visit lots of Transition groups and to hear the stories of what they are doing.  It is always very powerful for me to see Transition in action, to be inspired by the amazing creativity it unleashes.  At its heart, it’s about the level of inspiration I get from story, and being able to share those stories with others.  I’ve come to see what I do as being largely about storytelling, and as a speaker, telling stories and speaking from the heart are a far more powerful way to engage people, and to sustain yourself, than dry graphs and bullet points.
Ultimately what sustains me is a rather heady cocktail of stubbornness, optimism, a strong faith in the human spirit and in other people, rage, a deep wish to live a life of service to others, the thrill of seeing people step up and take their lives into their own hands, all coupled with a deep sense of urgency.  It works for me.
Photo credit: Arlo Murray Hopkins
Originally published at Rob Hopkins blog.