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For two weeks this November as part of the Secret Cinema’s rendition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I played the role of a physician instructing her students in the fine art of the transorbital lobotomy.
The London-based Secret Cinema creates homages to classic films: they take over abandoned buildings (in this case, a disused hospital) and recreate the set, with actors playing the roles, art installations celebrating the plot, live bands, bars and food. Punters spend two hours scrambling around the space getting sauced and getting in the spirit, before sitting down to watch the film.
My side project Guerilla Science, which brings scientific events into cultural spaces, hosted the Experimental Ward: psychiatric assessments, electroconvulsive treatments, and lobotomy lectures. Read more on our website in two extensive posts I wrote about the history and theory behind electroconvulsive therapy and the transorbital lobotomy – Neural Renovation and a kind of Surgery for the Soul, one could say.
Taking our place alongside bona fide actors and artists, we try to bring content with real historical and scientific meaning into what is essentially a theatrical performance. We think we don’t do too badly – our performances with OFOTCN saw us broadcast on Russian television. Not bad.
Truth be told, the whole experience made me lose my marbles just a little bit. Thinking about invasive and debilitating brain surgery inside an unheated building surrounded by dozens of actors playing mental patients can do that to a girl.
I wrote my very first glossy magazine feature five years ago about vaginas. Or, to be more precise, about the growing trend for labiaplasties: cosmetic modification of the vulva, undertaken in over 90 per cent of cases for aesthetic reasons (rather than for pain or other medical concerns). Some like to call them “designer vaginas.”
This was published not in one of the innumerable “women’s” magazines, amid tedious diet tips and guides to “The Five Shades of Lipstick That Will Save Your Relationship,” but for Shameless, the world’s first feminist magazine for teenagers.
This feature remains very close to my heart for two reasons: one, it netted me my very first National Magazine Award nomination (and the first for Shameless). And two, I received letters from readers – young girls suffering the agonising insecurities of adolescence – telling me that I had genuinely made them feel better about their bodies. One wrote to say she actually had started to feel that her vulva was a thing to love, rather than to feel embarrassed about. This still brings me an incredible amount of pride.
So it was with a keen interest that I received the following email (I shall not disclose the name and email address of the sender for litigious reasons).
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February 6, 2010
Would you consider placing a promotional link on your page: http://www.zoecormier.com/freelance/making-the-cut/? The link would be for a website which offers cosmetic surgery and vaser liposuction.
My budget isn’t enormous, but I am hoping there is a reasonable price we could arrange since it’s just a tiny piece of screen real estate I’m interested in.
Please let me know if you’re open to this, and if not I appreciate your time and wish you the best of luck with your site.
* * *
February 6, 2010
Thanks for your inquiry. Quick question – did you actually read the article in question?
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February 8, 2010
Yes, it mentions about cosmetic surgery so I find it interesting.
I would like to place a simple promotional text link on your page http://www.zoecormier.com/freelance/making-the-cut/ to link to [a cosmetic surgery clinic].
If possible I would really want to place that link within a sentence or two that I could write up so that it reads well (it won’t be overly promotional or lengthy).
I can pay you $70 USD for the link, for the whole year paid upfront with the assumption that you’ll leave it live on that page for at least 12 months, or longer if you prefer.
If that arrangement isn’t agreeable perhaps we could come up with something different for a couple additional links or some way in which we both benefit more (you more money, me more opportunity to get visits), let me know and I will see what I can do.
Please get back to me if interested and include your paypal account ID (just your email of course) for payment. I look forward to your positive response.
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February 10, 2010
Thanks again for your email – your proposal is certainly very interesting.
But again, I have to ask, did you actually read the article? Have a look at the last three paragraphs and please let me know if you think it is still a suitable place for the advertising in question.
All the best
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February 16, 2010
I did read. Are you still interested? Let me know.
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February 20, 2010
I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. I feel that advertising for the services in question would not harmonise with the spirit of the article. My intention was to celebrate the natural diversity of women’s bodies, rather than promote the belief that there is a ‘right’ or ‘ideal’ way to look.
I wish you all the best in your endeavours.
Continuing this exploration of the intertwined fates of two liquids – water and oil – I’ll share with you what I learned at the Royal Geographic Society last week. This seminal British institution, housed in a glorious Victorian building in Knightsbridge just spitting distance from the Royal Albert Hall on the south side of Hyde Park, hosted a lecture entitled “Is Water The New Oil?”, presented by the charity Just A Drop.
Andrew Mitchell, of the forest conservation group Global Canopy, said he thought linking the two liquids might be challenging – especially for him, a rainforest expert – but the ties between the impending global water crisis and climate change are clear once you pause for thought.
He explained how rainforests generate their own rainfall, and if the coastal forests of the Amazon are mowed down, the interior could parch into a desert (one hypothesized origin for the Sahara). Though we hear so much about aviation’s contributions to climate change (around two per cent of global emissions), deforestation accounts for far more greenhouse gas emissions, around 17 per cent. Though the lumber trade certainly has a role to play, 80 per cent of deforestation is for cattle grazing. And though we seldom think about the water footprint of what we buy, it is worth thinking about: one hamburger requires some 1300 gallons of water to produce. Meanwhile, a billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. And global access to fresh water is likely to only worsen as our climate changes.
Water, unlike oil, is precious, and essential for life, he said. But now most of us think of it as a commodity, something to buy – and he threw an image up on the screen of a bottle of water. Something packaged that we pay private companies through the nose to sell to us in oil-derived packaging – not a human right.
A good lecture, on all counts. Nothing you could argue with.
Except this: upon leaving each guest was handed a gift bag, provided by the evening’s sponsor, Simpson Millar, a “forward thinking” law firm (as the night’s MC had described them), containing a large faux leather folder (made from oil) and…
a bottle of water.
Right after being lectured on the need to preserve our planet’s fresh water, and the links between our profligate oil consumption and the looming global water crisis, we were all handed the very product that we were told encapsulates our misplaced values.
I was very surprised when Leeds University emailed me two months ago to ask me to take part in “The Great Bottled Water Debate”, this Tuesday, after their student union had voted overwhelmingly – by 75 per cent, the largest margin any motion had ever passed by – to ban bottled water from campus shops, cafes and bars.
I wasn’t surprised that they were banning bottled water – universities and city councils across North America and Europe have already done the very same.
I was surprised that they were holding a debate at all. Because, really, there isn’t one to be had.
Our lives are filled with unnecessary, wasteful and idiotic things to buy. But few as stupid as bottled water.
The environmental footprint is massive: the Pacific Institute in the US calculates that the carbon footprint for each bottle – when you take into account the oil used to create each bottle, and add to that the energy used to process, package and ship it to the consumer – amounts to the equivalent of filling that bottle a quarter full with oil. American bottled water consumption alone uses 17 million barrels of oil, and if the whole world drank as much bottled water as they do, we’d need a billion barrels of oil to supply demand.
The cost to the consumer is enormous: depending on where you live, buying water in plastic bottles costs 500 to 1000 times more than just getting it from the tap.
Now, most people say they prefer to fork out a buck or two for bottled water because they’d rather drink spring water than tap water. But here’s the funny part: 40 per cent of bottled water is just tap water (sometimes with a little extra filtration, ozonation or added salts to gussy it up).
I could go on and on and on. But I already did – you can read it here.
Suffice to say: few products are as downright silly as bottled water. Folks who work in advertising will always cite it as the best example that proves you can persuade people to buy anything, as long as it has a spiffy logo and a slick name. You can even convince people to pay 1000 times more for the exact same product that comes out of their tap for free. You can even convince people to buy water explicitly labeled as sourced from city taps if you give it the right look – check out Tap’d NY if you’re not convinced.
But it’s not just a harmless scam on unwitting consumers. It’s an unconscionable waste of polymer plastics, which are – let’s not forget – incredible materials. Clear, sterile, flexible and versatile, you can do incredible things with the stuff: syringes and blood bags, records and CDs, computers and cell phones.
I’ve written a lot about the problematic chemicals that are associated with modern plastic products, such as bisphenol A, and have been accused on many occasions of being a socialist, anti-petrochemical luddite. Which isn’t fair.
Because really, in the bottom of my heart, I adore plastic. It’s an incredible material that has utterly transformed the course of human history. Without it could I ever have listened to Fake Plastic Trees over and over and over, on cassette, CD then mp3, for the past 13 years? Unlikely.
But what do we do with this amazing thing that requires so much energy and ingenuity to produce? More than 40 per cent of plastic goes into packaging – from plastic bags to clam shell containers to bottles of water – used once and thrown away. No matter what way you slice it, it’s stupid. Read more about plastic waste here.
Even if you don’t care about the plastic waste that winds up in the ocean, or the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, you can’t deny that this waste of oil – a finite resource – is nothing but downright brainless.
So I was surprised that they were holding this debate. There is none to be had. Bottled water is essentially indefensible.
But I was looking forward to it, oh yes I was. Why? Not just for the chance to get up on my soap box (though I certainly do love that). I was looking forward to hearing what the representative from Danone (one of the world’s largest bottled water companies) was going to say. What could he (or she) possibly have to say in their industry’s defence?
Well, I had some idea, thanks to the Natural Hydration Council, the unbelievably transparent PR wing of the bottled water industry. I was going to ask them how they got their stat asserting that “97% of bottled water is naturally sourced,” and point out that the universally accepted figure is closer to 40%.
I figured they would argue that humans need “2 litres of fluid” a day to stay hydrated, and point out that a study last year in the Journal of Nephrology found no evidence to support this idea.
And of course I was going to point out that, even if you do want to force two litres of water down your gullet every day, you can do so very easily and cheaply with a nifty, reusable, stainless steel thermos, like the one I just bought from thinksport (such a great name for an undeniably clever product).
Oh my yes, I was looking forward to this. I hadn’t taken part in a good old debate since my days on my highschool debate team.
But – alas – the representative from Danone decided last minute not to come. Instead, a rep from One Water, which sells bottled water to raise funds for clean water projects in Africa (and, similarly, condoms to raise money for AIDS campaigns in Africa), took his place. Though I certainly don’t think that selling bottled water is the best way to raise money for charity, I can understand their view that if people are going to buy the product anyways, they might as well buy one that gives a slice to good causes. Beating up on somebody from an organisation geared around charity isn’t as much fun as laying into a corporate spin doctor.
Lame. Backing out of the debate was really cowardly.
Still though, I had good fun. It was so rewarding to be told that something I had written had actually inspired people to take action – its not often you can be told that, as a writer, and it always makes you proud.
It was also such a delight to see how well informed and passionate the students were. They really understood the issue, and with only one exception they all argued in favour of the ban.
The one student who opposed the ban did so on the grounds that he should have the choice to buy bottled water, and the ban deprived him of his freedom.
Fine. If you want the freedom to be stupid, go ahead and buy bottled water. That really is the only way to define the purchase of this product.
The Natural Hydration Council is certainly not going to give up without a fight – already I’ve seen their ads on the tube.
But I hope that the tide really is turning, people are realising how they have been duped into buying this ridiculous product, and the debate will be laid to rest.
But there’s one more point that I would like to make, that people often forget. Bottled water is actually quite dangerous, in that it “paves the way for privatisation”: if people become accustomed to thinking that they should have to pay for water, they will be more likely to accept the privatisation of public water supplies.
Already schools, hospitals and other government offices are being built without water fountains (and existing fountains in public parks being left to rust) because people are forgetting that they should be there.
Full privatisation would be inefficient and corrupt, and disproportionately affect the poor. But it would also be historically retrograde, and staggeringly naïve. Clean, safe and cheap public water supplies are one of the great cornerstones of civilisation: the Romans took great pride in their drinking water, and created beautiful public fountains for that very reason.
Let’s hope we don’t forget it.
Note: I was invited because I had written a feature for The New Internationalist about the “environmental nightmare” that is bottled water, alongside Jeanette Longfield of food and farming NGO Sustain, and a representative from the bottled water industry. I was incredibly chuffed to have been invited, and proud that they told me that my piece was a big part of the inspiration behind the ban. But of course this piece could not have been written had it not been for the reports produced by people at NGOs like Sustain, the Polaris Institute and Food and Water Watch – nor the hard work of people “on the ground,” as they say, working to create real change.
This week the United Nations Development Programme released a new report: “Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world.” Basic conclusion: developed nations are responsible for climate change, but it is people in the developing world who will largely suffer, it is the responsibility of developed countries to take action – and fast.
This has all been widely covered in the media, so I’ll be brief.
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no better way to cut through the crap and get right to the point than with some simple statistics. So here are some interesting numbers from the report:
- Number of Earths required for everyone on earth to have the carbon footprint of the average Canadian: 9
- 19 million people living in New York state have the same carbon footprint as 766 million people living in the world’s 50 poorest countries.
- Global average temperature rise we must keep within: 2C
- Level of ambient carbon dioxide we must keep within to stay under 2C: 450ppm
- Amount developed countries need to cut carbon emissions: 80% by 2050
- Amount developing countries need to cut carbon emissions by 2050: 20%
- Therefore, amount the world needs to cut carbon emissions by 2050: 50%
- Amount required to reach this goal: £800 billion/year
- What is £800 billion? Just 1.6% of our global GDP
There you have it. Just 1.6% of our global GDP. Would that seriously be so difficult?
But there’s one statistic that to me is more revealing than anything else:
£800 billion is just two thirds the amount we spend globally on weapons every year.
There isn’t anything else I need to say.
I find the concept of “genius” very interesting.
My step-grandfather is a novelist, and he believes that he is a genius. He will tell you so very loudly (and, if you admit that you haven’t read his novels, very angrily).
I disagree. Not for any reason to do with his novels. Rather, because I think true geniuses are very, very rare. If we get even a couple of bona fide geniuses in a generation, we should consider ourselves very lucky. Intelligence and brilliance are fairly common – but genius, well that is something altogether different.
The consultants at Synectics, however disagree. They think its pretty common, and have compiled a list of the world’s top 100 living “geniuses”, people whose “thinking and work led to a complete re-appraisal of everything that had gone before.” I’d generally agree with that definition.
The list is pretty broad, covering mathematicians, physicists, chess champions, biochemists, political and spiritual leaders, plus a healthy dose of pop-culture icons, such as Philip Glass (9), Matt Groening (4), and Quentin Tarantino (100).
But who tops the list you ask? Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD.
“Through the late 1940s and most of the 1950s, LSD caused a revolution in psychiatry. Therapists and doctors used it to treat forms of mental illness, including neurosis, psychosis and depression. More than 40,000 people underwent psychedelic therapy…Hofmann calls LSD “medicine for the soul” and is frustrated by the worldwide prohibition that has pushed it underground.”
I’m not sure what they were smoking (or, more likely, dropping) at Synetics, but it must be off the hook. I’m not a prohibitionist – but I’ve seen enough acid casualties to think twice about giving the inventor of LSD the honour of the world’s greatest living genius.
In fact, the entire list – based in part on public opinion – has simply reinforced my opinion that the word “genius” is not to be used lightly.
Look, I love Stevie Wonder (49), JK Rowling (83), Jane Goodall (58), and Aretha Franklin (67) as much as the next gal – in face, their presence on this earth makes my life appreciably better. But I wouldn’t call them geniuses.
Moreover, there are a lot of pretty mediocre – in some cases downright moronic – entries on this list. You’ll find Richard Branson at 49 (psht), Margaret Atwood at 49 (whose tiresomely misanthropic books I only ever read because my teachers forced me to), Damien Hirst at 15 (for the LOVE of CHRIST), and Rupert Murdoch at 20 (well, I’d agree with that – but only if you qualify it with the word “evil”).
Lastly, as further evidence to the fact that the folks at Synectics were high, lazy and thoughtless when they compiled this, the bastards even list Montrealer Leonard Cohen (58) as “American.” Jerks. They couldn’t even be bothered to look up his Wikipedia entry? Pathetic.
About six weeks ago I was so sapped of energy that I was unable to blog properly – so I compiled an entry out of half a dozen mini-entries.
Now I have the opposite problem – I have incredible amounts energy (despite the pathetic grey English skies hanging over my head every day). I have read so many newspapers and scribbled so many notes in the past week, that my list of things I want to blog about has grown to gargantuan proportions. So again I’m going to smush a bunch of things together into one entry so I can get these things out of my inbox. Here’s another Short and Sweet offering from Zoetic.
1. Scientists off the coast of Hawaii have captured what appears to be a cross between an octopus and a squid – which they have therefore named “octosquid.”
Oooh, oooh, just what kind of cephalopod is it? I wait with bated breath. (I’m not being sarcastic. I am.)
2. Knut – the famous Berlin baby polar bear – is now breaching adolescence, and is no longer cute. In fact, he’s now downright dangerous (as polar bears tend to be), and his keeper will no longer be able to perform their little twice-daily play routine.
I wonder if the loss of innocence and fame will make the little bear depressed. I hope he doesn’t cultivate a cocaine addiction or start flashing his genitals to the crowd or anything.
3. Here’s a great video of an iceberg collapsing. Unlike the video of the epic Serengeti battle between lions, water buffalo and crocs, this one is narrated by Canadian boaters (not annoying American tourists). Not only are their accents thoroughly adorable (eek! I LOVE East coasters), the cameraman does more than just point out the blindingly obvious – he’s seen these before and knows the drill. “That’s a pretty big founder, that’s probably as big as you’re ever going to see.”
4. A troop of about 100 grey-shanked douc monkeys have been spotted in Vietnam.
This is a red-shanked douc – grey-shanked ones are far too rare to make for readily-found photographs. There are fewer than 1000 of the animals yet, and scientists say the discovery of this big troop gives a major boost to the species chances of survival. Kick ass.
5. There are now officially seven new wonders of the world: The Great Wall of China, Rome’s Colosseum, India’s Taj Mahal, Peru’s Machu Picchu, Brazil’s Statue of Christ Redeemer, Mexico’s Chichen Itza, and Jordan’s Petra.
The new list was compiled from more than 100 million votes, sent via the internet cellphone text messages, which whittled more than 200 nominees – including the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and Sydney’s Opera House – down to these seven. (The pyramids of Giza, the only remaining wonders of the ancient world, were allowed to retain their special status as a great wonder… whatever that means.)
According to this news piece,
Among the places left out were Stonehenge; the Acropolis in Athens, Greece; the Statues of Easter Island, Chile; Cambodia’s Angkor; Turkey’s Hagia Sophia; and Russia’s Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral… The new architectural marvels were presented during a show which included appearances by American actress Hilary Swank, Indian actress Bipasha Basu, and British actor Ben Kingsley, as well as performances by Jennifer Lopez and Jose Carreras.
YAWN. They say the point of the election is “to encourage cultural diversity by supporting, preserving and restoring monuments, and inspire people to value their heritage.” Sounds more like those student council elections in university and highschool that I never voted for, which were little more than popularity contests masquerading as democratic exercises for the greater good.
6. OK, and lastly, I guess I should say something about Live Earth.
It’s all been said before. From “This mega-event will finally catalyze the public to act,” to “This hedonistic self-congratulatory party won’t change anything but waste energy and burn more carbon,” to “Al Gore is ripping off Geldoff,” to “Al Gore is a rock star.” On and on and on. I don’t have anything new to add. And I didn’t watch it (no tickets to Wembly, no TV, couldn’t be bothered to compete for bandwidth on MSN).
OK, probably most of the people who went to Live Earth went to get drunk and watch Shakira shake her fantastic hips than think about how their actions affect the climate. No, most of them probably won’t change their behaviour that much. And yes, it does bother me a little bit that more people have heard what Kelly Clarkson, AFI, Akon and Fall Out Boy have to say about climate change than me. (And CHRIST that’s a shitty line-up.)
But desperate times call for desperate measures. I do not give a shit about how the message gets out, I just want it to reach people, by any means necessary. I just want the world – specifically, the world’s politicians – to wake the fuck up and implement some serious changes before it is too late (and it may already be too late). So I’m happy Live Earth happened, regardless of its flaws (even regardless that Chevy was one of the sponsors… honestly).
Although, I must say – I do wish Madonna hadn’t worn this.
Yikes. I’m all for staying in shape and loving your body at any age, but somebody needs to explain the concept of “aging gracefully” to her. It doesn’t look like that. It looks like this.
(And by the way, Madge, Suzy was campaigning for action on poverty in Africa before you could even pronounce “Uganda.”)
Gay Poles are flocking to the UK to escape the government’s “crackdown” on homosexuality, their migration being much easier now that Poland is part of the EU.
I don’t think any discussion is necessary here on why gays and lesbians should be afforded equal rights. I assume – or at least, hope – that that truth is self evident to anyone reading this blog. Forget arguments about how homosexuality occurs in all kinds of animals (which it does – for an excellent summary check out this piece from National Geographic).
That’s beside the point – gays and lesbians deserve respect and equal rights in all matters, including everything from true marriage (none of this “civil partnership” b.s.) to the right to merely exist. This shouldn’t even need to be addressed.
What does need to be pointed out however is the deplorable fact that providing equal rights to gays and lesbians – and all other manner of basic human rights legislation – should be an absolute requirement for entry into the EU. All sorts of economic and democratic criteria have to be met, and yet member countries are not required to give full rights to gays and lesbians, as in Poland, nor to give women reproductive control, as in Portugal and Ireland.
I really can’t think of any other word for this but deplorable.
Although I understand the desire for cultural heterogeneity, and to not dictate a universal set of values for each country, there is no justification for this kind of backwards, medieval prejudice. If Europe truly wants to be the modern, sophisticated, rational counterpart to America, they have to protect the basic human dignity of all Europeans.
About two months ago, a 17-year old in Ireland made newspaper headlines here in England. She wanted to travel to the UK for an abortion – which is illegal in Eire (unless the life of the mother is “threatened”) – because her baby had a fatal brain abnormality. It was only going to live a day or two, tops, and she quite rightly didn’t feel it was necessary for her to carry the thing to term for the sake of dogma. Click here for a posting I wrote about the case for the blog for Shameless, a feminist magazine for teens. (The Irish authorities eventually relented and let her travel.)
I wasn’t surprised that abortion is still illegal in Ireland – after all, they only made divorce legal in 1995. As comedian Dennis Leary puts it, “Blow jobs are a long way off in that country. [Mimics voice of standard government official]: ‘We’re hoping to vote the blow job in by 2050 – right now we’re only alloted three a year and they all go to Michael Flatly.’”
So I expected the Irish to be a bit, well, medieval. But what I didn’t know at the time that I wrote that post was that abortion is restricted in the UK as well. As it turns out, British abortion laws are downright archaic.
MPs and medical associations at the moment are hoping to change the laws and give women the right to have an abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. They refer to this as “abortion on demand” – although I prefer the quaint term “choice” (call me old-fashioned). Click here for a piece in The Guardian about the issue.
At the moment a woman in the UK seeking an abortion in the first trimester needs to have the procedure approved by not one, but two doctors, and for it to be considered “medically justified” (whatever the fuck that means).
What purpose is there in requiring that two doctors approve a woman’s decision, except to undermine her right to choose for herself? As MPs and doctor’s point out, the risks that surgical abortion came with when the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 are no longer with us – so there is no longer any legitimate medical reason for excessive consultation. All the requirements do is delay the process, force more women to have abortions at later times in their pregnancies and force them to carry their burdens for longer (or forgo an abortion altogether).
And yes, the word is “burden.” Whether you’re 17 and have your whole life ahead of you, or are 48 and are no longer able to commit to raising a child (or enduring the pain of childbirth), an unwanted pregnancy is just that: a burden. A burden on your body, on your emotions, your health, your finances, your time, your life – and, ultimately, a burden on the state. A child that is truly wanted is probably the most beautiful thing any one of us can have. A child that isn’t wanted is a tragedy, and the last thing Britain needs is more unwanted children (the island has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in all of Europe).
And make no mistake: this isn’t just a question of the rights of the “unborn,” this is about the rights of women. As the old joke goes, “If men needed abortions, clinics would have drive through windows.”
It comes down to this: Either you have a system that respects a woman’s choice, or you don’t. Britain is treading an uneasy line, where you have only theoretical choice within a system that ultimately seeks to limit it.
I expected better. I really did.
When I first moved to London, I thought that the Brits had a pretty good relationship with trees.
This pleased me. I grew up in downtown Toronto, Canada, where residential streets (even in the very centre of the city) are completely lined with maple trees everywhere you go. Here’s a picture of the street I grew up on circa 1997 or so.
Isn’t that lovely?
Walking home from school, I used to spend ages staring at the leaves overhead, feeling dwarfed and comforted by the canopy that towered far above.
Trees are crucial for any city. This isn’t just my opinion, this is a fact. They make it shady and cooler in the summer, reduce smog, absorb storm water, prevent soil erosion, suck up carbon dioxide (and thus mitigate climate change), produce oxygen, and muffle noise. Some say you can actually measure the benefits in solid dollar amounts – the US Forestry Service found that in a fifty year lifespan the average tree generates generates $31,250 worth of oxygen, provides $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion.
But, more than that, trees just make us feel better. Some studies claim that patients with views of trees from their hospital windows heal faster, and that trees significantly improve relaxation and well being in research subjects – but we don’t really need a study to tell us that, do we? We didn’t come down from the trees that long ago, it makes sense that we should feel nice to have them around.
Toronto is basically unparalleled when it comes to its urban forest. It’s often said that the city boasts more trees per area than any other big city. I’m not sure if this is entirely true, but this pamphlet from the city of Toronto says that there are 7 million trees in the city – more than two for every resident. This is in great part due to the fact that the city forces home owners to have trees, by law (I think it’s something like one tree on a front lawn for every other house). Try and cut a tree down – yes, even one on your own property – and you will be fined up the wazoo.
Most people wouldn’t think of hurting the trees in their neighbourhood, though. Torontonians positively adore their trees. Check out this great piece in the Toronto Star about the efforts people are going to in order to save the city’s oldest elm tree.
Sadly, most of the world’s big cities are not so protective of their greenery, or even have much to speak of. I was worried that a life in a teeming metropolis like London would mean a life less shady. But when I first came to London I lived in South Kensington, where there are many big, stocky plane trees about.
Not bad – there could be more trees along the street, but those are nice and big at least.
Again, not bad – there could be more of them, but those sure are lovely green beasts right there.
So, like I was saying, when I first lived in London, I thought the Brits had an ok relationship with their trees. But at this point I lived in one of the richest areas in the city (lodging with my grandparents) – if you move farther out into less affluent neighbourhoods the picture is very different indeed.
Obviously it varies from place to place, but this photo of my mother’s neighbourhood in East Ham, in East London, is pretty typical.
Here’s another one from one of my favourite areas, Stoke Newington – which is more affluent and trendy, but even more lacking in trees (on this street anyways).
As I spent more and more time in London’s more distal areas, I really started to get the feeling that Londoners really aren’t all that fond of big trees. I mean, look at the pathetic stumps on the plane trees in the picture from my mother’s street. All over London, once a year tree surgeons rob the upmost branches of their new twigs to prevent the roots from “over” growing and cracking the concrete, and to prevent leaves from falling into the street and becoming a “nuisance” in the fall.
(Um, hello? It’s called FALL for a reason. You’re supposed to enjoy it. Raking leaves and making big piles to jump in is an inalienable right of every child.)
Now, you might think that London is lacking in trees because the city is old, and that the mammoth trees planted a hundred years ago are just dying out. This is partially true.
But a report from the London Authority says that 40,000 trees have been cut down by the city’s councils in the past five years. All over the city Londoners have been tearing down their trees because they see them as a nuisance – a source of pesky leaves in the gutter, a perch for birds to sit on and poop on cars, an opportunity for children to climb and hurt themselves.
But, according to this lengthy piece from The Guardian, “the real villain is the insurance industry.”
If a hairline crack appeared in your spare room 40 years ago, you shrugged your shoulders and decorated over it. In the 1970s, however, subsidence became an insurance peril – insured for and claimable – and what Andy Tipping [chairman of the London Tree Officers' Association] calls the “insurance merry-go-round” began. It spins like this: householders and insurance companies find it easiest to blame street trees. Consultants who assess claims can lose their own professional insurance if they do not cover every conceivable cause of subsidence, so they, too, blame trees. Councils then face expensive claims to which the cheapest solution is to do the insurance company’s bidding and remove the suspect street tree. “Everyone is frightened of insurance companies. They’ve created a Frankenstein’s monster,” says Tipping. “What we are faced with today is someone coming along, seeing a tree by a house, pointing their finger at the tree and saying, ‘That’s the problem.’”
According to this excellent piece from The Times, “Some 40 per cent of the trees felled are due to insurance claims, according to the assembly report, of which perhaps 1 per cent were justified.”
Aaaahhh, the insurance companies – now that makes a lot more sense than mild-mannered English people hacking down their own greenery out of spite and ignorance. I wouldn’t put any devious act past the insurance industry. Remember when they refused to pay out to Hurricane Katrina victims for hurricane damage because they claimed their homes had been damaged by “flood” instead? Charming, that was.
So maybe I’m being too hard on the Brits. Maybe this isn’t really a case of them being loony, but just being lazy and complacent about the defoliation of their capital. But for whatever reason one of the world’s greatest cities is losing about 8,000 trees a year, new ones aren’t going to grow on their own (at least, not anytime soon), and the ones that remain aren’t going to last long unless they are given some legal protection. If things continue at this rate London could truly become unbearable to live in.
Screw the insurance industry and put in some bloody by-laws. If cities in the “colonies” can figure it out, surely the motherland can.
This is the second part of the series, “The lunacy of the British.” The series will continue until I stop finding things about them to complain about…which will probably never happen. You can read the first installment, with an explanation of the inspiration for the posts, here.