Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?

Coronavirus has struck at an interesting time. These are turbulent days. Commentators speak in seismic proportions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ replacing such indulgencies as past and future. We are living in the midst of an Event, or a The Event, like the event which occurred on the 11th of September, 2001. It is an event that shapes modern history, after which one does not look back in quite the same way. Maybe such an event is inevitable. Maybe coronavirus is necessary for us to change direction.

We’ve got the whole world in our hands – or is it the other way round?

It is bad

Chilling stories are emerging which recommend the most drastic measures for 12–18 months. If not, 2.2 million will die. If we are clever and disciplined and follow orders, only 1.1 million will die. If we alter our lifestyles dramatically, only 20,000 will die.

The only reliable metric we have is death count. Different countries test and report differently. Widespread testing has not yet been rolled out, and the 14-day incubation period means that even if draconian measures are put in place now, we could still see sharp rises in case numbers during the two weeks that follow.

But it has always been bad

It is interesting that, following such cataclysmic climate catastrophes as the Australian bushfires, it is only now that such measures look likely. In 2018, as many as 29 million people were adversely affected by climate disasters. Wildfires ravaged California, hurricanes battered other parts of the US, and 5 million were displaced by flooding in India.

If you look at the numbers, they are staggering in ways the coronavirus isn’t — yet. We live in a time of unprecedented times. We read about giant events resetting the lives of other people all the time. But these are localised, generally speaking, or at least easy to think of as such.

Climate activists the world over called for policy overhauls, and small victories were won. But nothing fundamentally changed. Someone dies by committing suicide every 40 seconds. There were over 6,500 suicides in the UK in 2018 alone. The Yemeni Civil War has led to as many as 100,000 deaths since 2015. But for some reason, these all get swept under the rug. There are ongoing global tragedies that fail to galvanise us as a human population.

We are, or at least should be, better together

Is coronavirus the silver bullet we need?

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been a smattering of quietly beautiful news reports. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan are among several Chinese cities to be enjoying uncharacteristically blue skies. Air pollution levels are lower than they have been, in some cases, for decades.

Likewise, in Italy, pollution levels are plummeting. The ban on all but essential travel in swathes of Europe is allowing the continent’s airwaves to breathe, and its waterways to refresh. The canals of Venice are seeing dolphins for the first time in 60 years.

An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever.
The fish are visible, the swans returned

Europe’s most hated airline, along with several other budget carriers, are grounding the vast majority of their flights. While this is an estimable bummer for pilots and crews, the benefits are clear.

The yet-to-be-realised cherry

Social commentators in the UK, US and elsewhere are noticing the resurgence in favour of socialist policies. Educational institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online, are making pay-to-access materials free for a limited time (read: 12 to 18 months) to help those in quarantine. Visited the NYTThe Journal, and QNS for more detail on those. In the UK, the Co-op has joined legions of others in supporting children forced to stay home during these first months of the pandemic.

Healthcare professionals, among other keyworkers keeping our society relatively intact, are self-deploying on the frontline. Volunteers are jumping out of the woodwork. Community groups abound. Town councils are considering buying and cultivating local land. Teachers are offering their services remotely and for free.

We are seeing glimmers of a socialist utopia through the cracks forming in our crumbling, ultra-consumerist paradigm. Universal Basic Income is being floated with renewed buoyancy — people all over country are recognising that the government’s business-first approach has set us up to fail during a time of global health crisis. Our gutted NHS is understaffed, under-resourced and criminally undervalued.

And lead us not into temptation

It has been said that we will see the best and worst of humanity in the coming weeks and months. It is tempting in such situations to simplify the virus. We might see it as a divine clarion call, or method of holy retribution — punishment for sins uncountable — designed to sweep us out of ideology and into something purer. But do not become unstuck.

From FP:

Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors.

Aside from being a killer reference to Sisyphus and delightfully alliterative, this is perceptive. Human populations are weak when shocked. Ideas proliferate, but so do prejudices, misinformation and wanton references to the divine.

Conspirators sit at their computers, or in front of shiny logos, and pontificate about the ever-changing ‘they’ and what ‘they’ stand to gain. Trump calls it a Chinese virus — we are told to ‘wake up and smell the silicon’ — Asian-looking Brits are being beaten in the streets. Heaven only knows what Piers Morgan has to say.

Seek method in madness, and measures of moderation

If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.

True, and fair enough. The virus is not some pendulous revenge tack swung back at us by Mother Nature herself. We are not living an allegory, lungs besieged by the viral wing of a suffocating Gaia.

Yes, there are somewhat pleasingly poetic connections to be found between our hyper-industrial, anthropocentric activity on this earth, a strangling of the world’s resources, or pummelling of its vital organs, and the ease with which the coronavirus swipes at our respiratory systems — individual and collective.

But the blanket coverage of coronavirus is not a test from a divine power. Nor, probably, was it fabricated with evil intent, or released by Jeff Bezos to increase dependence on Amazon. Disparate micro-patterns emerge but do not necessarily form a larger whole. Those profiting from the virus are simply well placed. Obviously Bezos stands to gain because he is well placed to gain in just about any situation.

If we are going to ride this wave towards a socialist utopia (and please let’s do that), let us do so carefully, with measure, and without crashing.

Remember, always remember:

Ladies, please. Let’s not lose our heads.

Lose our heads? Aaaahh.


This article also appears on Medium, as part of the Data Driven Investor publication, along with another piece titled:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Read more on the subject elsewhere on this blog:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

‘Every day we see plastic’ — The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Is it real?

The Pacific Garbage Patch, or simply the Patch, is, by now, a household name, the climate bogeyman, a beast of biblical proportions — like an ark, but built (or so you think) from bottles and toothbrushes, and supporting mostly nebulous and parasitic life forms. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

History of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In 1997, on his way home from competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race, yachtsman Charles Moore sailed through a film of plastic debris on his way home to Los Angeles. The accumulation of human-made waste, infamously dubbed ‘twice the size of Texas’, was first named by an oceanographer from Seattle, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who previously tracked the course of a consignment of 29,000 Friendly Floatees — rubber ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs — as they drifted through the Pacific, having been thrown overboard in a squall.

For 15 years, the Patch’s multifarious identities proliferated. It took root in the public consciousness. Recently, Al Gore was given honorary citizenship of Trash Isles, a cumulus ‘emerging nation’, floating somewhere between California and Hawaii — i.e., the Patch.

[Note: the word ‘Patch’ is, I’m afraid, misleading. Patch connotes island, which is something we can picture, and destroy. More on this later. In short, they are not so much patches as nebulas. I will, however, keep referring to it as the Patch, because it’s convenient, non-acronymic shorthand, and sounds cool.]

The Ocean Cleanup project – a source of hope

Then, The Ocean Cleanup was born. Founded in 2013, the project aims to clean plastic debris from the world’s oceans, and minimise the release of plastic waste into the oceans via rivers, with methods ranging from the deployment of passive ocean cleanup systems to so-called Interceptors.

Rubbish from rivers, as well as battered container ships, accumulates in gyres, large circular currents that twine the oceans of the globe. Objects migrate to specific zones, the confluence of currents, or tip-off points, and get stuck there. While the Patch is arguably the most nefarious of these cul-de-sacs, there are in fact at least five in total, the results of gyres in the Indian (1), Atlantic (2) and Pacific (2) oceans.

The most commonly circulated images of the (Pacific) Patch — popular because they present something tangible, provocative and shareable — are of piles of bottles and fishing nets. But the reality is a little different.

What is the Patch actually made of?

Short answer: microplastics. Comprising 94% of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch is a smog of microplastic particles. The most delightful thing to not think about, these bits of eroded, softened plastic come in inconceivably large numbers, and are toxic to marine life.

Microplastics are the devil. You’ve heard of them. They’re small— smaller than a pencil eraser. They’re hard to pick up — especially without killing loads of fish. They also make patches such as this hard to quantify or measure.

The majority of the rest, or an estimated 46% of the overall mass, is fishing nets. Much of the remainder is fishing industry gear — traps, baskets, crates, etc. It is not the plastic bottles you read about in the headlines; nor is it bubble wrap, or toothbrushes. It’s fishing gear, abandoned and swept out to sea. Discarded nets strangle, suffocate and injure as many as 100,000 marine animals per year. They also transport species from one place to another. Non-native invasive species can disrupt fragile ecosystems by outcompeting or overcrowding native species.

So there are fishing objects and microplastics and nets and bottles and toothbrushes, and they inhabit an area that is or is not twice the size of Texas. But The Ocean Cleanup says they can reduce it by ½ every year, so what do we have to worry about?

It’s worse than that:

The reality of ocean pollution is more insidious. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that as much as 70% of marine litter sinks — which stinks. So the ocean bed is home to more than double that which is already largely invisible from the water’s surface.

Moreover, according to a study published in Nature, plastic pollution within the Patch is increasing exponentially, which means immediate action is essential.

To run with a relatable, domestic metaphor: the drain is blocked, the tap is on full, and the puddle on the floor is increasing in size, faster and faster every minute. What’s the first step when dealing with an overflowing sink?

Turn it off

Perhaps the most alarming statistics have to do with global plastic production. To take this as a starting point is to truly understand the scale of the problem. Globally, producers churn out 300 million tons of plastic every year. Of this, half is for single-use purposes.

8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year. Already, the ocean contains up to 165 million tons of plastic — which, as Business Insider loves to point out, 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

By contrast, the Patch contains an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, a mere 1% of annual global ocean-bound plastic waste. So the puddle is getting bigger, bigger and bigger every minute, and the tap is spewing out one hundred times the volume of the puddle every year.

Conclusion: any measures put in place to filter plastics from the ocean should be multiplied a hundredfold, and redirected towards reducing the plastic that is bound for the oceans in the first place.

The Pacific Garbage Patch really is a bogeyman — a sort of amorphous, ugly, life-asphyxiating scapegoat-metaphor we use to effectively package the plastics issue into something digestible. By fixating ourselves on this titanic pile of netting, and shrouding it in mythos, we conceive of the problem as something both fixable and eternal, as if its presence is a requisite truth.

Hard truths

  • 2.5 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their animal protein. Polluted oceans means polluted fisheries, which means polluted us.
  • By 2050, scientists estimate, there could be as much plastic as there are fish in the ocean. Plastic is literally designed to defeat natural decay. It is both our trump card and our downfall.
  • 99% of ocean-dwelling plastic waste is unaccounted for. The island is unseen.
  • Plastic chokes the ocean’s ability to trap CO2, thereby exacerbating global heating.

Is there room for hope?

An estimated three quarters of the Patch’s mass is carried by debris larger than 5cm. This means it can be feasibly, mechanically removed. (Microplastics require more complex filtration systems, which are far more likely to result in collateral by-catch.)

More hope is to be found in the Ocean Cleanup’s interception systems which, when strategically placed in 1000 river locations around the world, should prevent a portion of ocean-bound plastics from ever reaching the sea.

What can we do as consumers/voters to help reduce the Pacific Garbage Patch?

  • Avoid high-density polyethylene. This stuff makes soap bottles, toothbrushes, many consumer goods that float in the ‘garbage patch’, and elsewhere. Choose Lush, or Ethique, or any of the proliferation of ethical cosmetics companies. Try shampoo bars, rock salt deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes, all that jazz — see if it works for you.
  • Shop at wet markets, or simply do not use single-use plastic bags some supermarkets use to wrap fruit and veg.
  • Buy local, Soil Association certified, organic, etc.
  • Carry a tote bag for food shopping/groceries, and a refillable, washable water bottle.
  • Vote for the party with the greenest policies.

“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”



This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more environment-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives, or to Features to catch my latest research pieces.


Milking the issue – arguments about the best milk substitute

Milk substitutes get a lot of flak — they are hypocritical, they are unhealthy, they are bad for the planet, they use too much water, they shouldn’t be called milks, and so on. In trying to sort wheat from chaff, I have found that, largely, these criticisms are unfounded, rooted in misunderstanding and/or peddled by dairy lobbyists. But scare stories stick in the mind, and often require unwedging. The question of ‘what is the best milk substitute’ is buried under mindless prejudices.

Many of the shots fired masquerade as legitimate, informed concerns, be they medical, ecological or nutritional. However, many of them require little research to dislodge.

What is the best milk substitute?

Soy milk

Criticisms of soy include the causation of hormonal misbalance, or a ‘feminising’ effect on men (untrue / incomprehensively tested / tested on animals, rather than humans). There was one guy who reported increased oestrogen levels, and breast tenderness, but he was drinking six pints of soy milk a day: too much, as they say, of a good thing.

Soy is also panned for its monoculturism. Production has increased fifteen-fold since the 1950s, and is mostly limited to the United States, Brazil and Argentina. It is true that soy accounts for the second largest portion of deforestation worldwide — after cattle ranching. Plantations are ploughed into land which, for generations, has been used for subsistence farming. The forest, rugged yet fragile, loses its balance. More than 200 tribes, comprising 650,000 Brazilian Indians, are threatened by the expansion of agricultural and grazing (read: soy and ranching) land. Jaguars are dying.

So, is soy bad? Well, on such grand scales, yes. But 70–75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. 32 million acres of South American soy-growing land feeds Europe’s meat and dairy industries — equivalent to three Switzerlands. So with ranching in the top position, and soy, three quarters of which is converted into animal feed, in second place, any criticism of soy monocultural deforestation is more justly levelled at the meat industry (having been multiplied, by three or more).

Almond milk

Almond milk has come under fire too, for its allegedly astronomical levels of water wastage — a wave of criticism set off by a dietary consultant of the diary industry, albeit a lactose-free arm.

A widely shared graphic, cited by the BBC, shows almond milk water use to be substantially higher than that of oat, soy or rice milks. Almonds are one of the most water-intensive crops in California, requiring approximately 1 gallon per almond. However, dairy milk water use is still nearly twice as high.

The results are derived from a University of Oxford study. Taking into account 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, the study finds that ‘the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins’, almost across the board. (It shows as much as 105kg of CO2 is produced per 100g of beef protein, compared to 3.5kg of CO2 per 100g of tofu protein) The Guardian’s environment editor talks about this too.

“Save the bees; drink dairy.” During the winter of 2018–19, an estimated 50 billion bees were ‘wiped out’ during the Californian almond harvest. But the news articles and opinion pieces which actually investigate this typically point to industrialised farming methods as the primary culprit, not the fact of almond consumption — nor, indeed, almond milk production.

A typical line runs as follows:

If you’ve given up dairy in a quest to be a little kinder to the planet, we’ve got bad news. Your almond milk latte obsession may be doing more harm than good.


Well, no it’s not, because it’s not dairy, which is doing more harm than good, and more harm than almonds — much more. Waves of bandwagon/shifting-the-blame criticism like this prompt such high-grade opinion-havers as Piers Morgan to tweet things like “the mass slaughter of billions of bees is on YOU vegans [and] vegetarians,” which is super intelligent, because only 1/25 of almonds are actually used to make almond milk (my estimate, calculations below).

[The United States produces 2 million tonnes of almonds per year. Global almond milk sales for 2018 were just under $6 billion. Divide this by a conservatively low retail cost per litre ($1.50) = 4 billion litres, consisting of 98% non-almond ingredients (water, vitamins, salt, oil, etc.). My own shaky maths gives a total of 80 million kg (or 80,000 tonnes) total mass of almonds used to produce almond milk per year (those pesky vegans are so thirsty), out of total almond production of 2 million tonnes (in the US alone), accounting for just 4% of almonds produced.]

“Your ‘animal ethics’ don’t extend to the little guys,” Piers adds. And yours, apparently, don’t extend to one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet.

Drinking the milk of a cow does nothing to salvage the fate of the bees. Plus, if the lives and livelihoods of droves of bees are of value, why then should the mass slaughter of larger mammals be ignored? Per litre, almond milk accounts for a quarter of the carbon emissions of dairy milk. Any criticism aimed at the almond industry, its affiliates and associates, should surely be multiplied and redirected at dairy.

Oat, Cashew, Hazelnut & Rice milks

As far as I can tell, basically no one has beef with oats. The Oatly brand got a bit of stick for selling shares to China Resources, and running an ad campaign tagged with a line reminiscent of a ‘quit drinking’ slogan, but besides that it’s actually hard to find any criticism online. Drink away.

The cashew industry certainly presents an ethical dilemma, but again, it has nothing to do with the fact of cashews being processed into a milk substitute.

In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report exposed the conditions in Vietnamese forced-labour camps, in which cashew nuts were being processed. Fortunately, this particular punitive slavery practice has been put to an end. Still, cashews are harvested and processed manually, which takes several steps. Exposure to the caustic oils contained within layers of cashew shell causes painful burns and lung irritation, and many workers choose not to wear gloves, in favour of unconstrained handiwork.

Turkey produces and exports three quarters of the world’s hazelnuts, 30% of which are sold to Germany. Productivity is affected by disease and climate. No highlighted concerns.

Rice milk substitute is fine, as long as you don’t drink nothing other than rice milk, while also eating nothing other than rice. Criticisms are hard to find. Plus side: if you have a nut allergy, you can still drink this (because it doesn’t contain nuts).

Basically, it seems, cashew, hazelnut and rice milks don’t offend anyone like Piers Morgan because they are not widespread and popular enough to challenge the status quo. People get tizzy and amplify concerns over soy and almond milks because they are disrupting the dairy-ruled equilibrium, and because, as a rule, people click on headlines which are provocative and reactionary.

In an era where environmental consciousness is entering the mainstream, we owe it to ourselves to sit on the right side of the fence. Plant-based milk substitutes are no longer the domain of the hip, nor do they belong to alternative communities. They have firmly wedged themselves into everyday life. Sacrifices no longer have to be made. Pathos, or ‘loving animals’, is no longer required to make the transition. People are starving, or obese, or sick; the world is burning, sinking and melting; vegans, like non-alcoholics, or those who have quit smoking, are often healthier and happier than meat-eaters; Logos wins outright. It is simply more sensible.

What you can do

Make your own milk — the best milk substitute is a homemade milk substitute (that ancient adage). Almond, oat, soy, even cashew and hazelnut (though these last two are costly). Source your products as locally as possible, control the variables, drink at your leisure.

Buy organic, and/or local. No pesticides, less water, less guilt.

Consider the options. Basically any milk is better than cow’s milk. Remember, mammals are only supposed to drink animal milk while they are suckling. From a bunch of perspectives, it makes much more sense to make opaque white protein-filled liquids from plants instead. Try all of them, see which you like best.

In a nutshell, then:
To minimise CO2 emissions, drink almond.
To minimise land use, drink rice.
To minimise water use, drink soy.

On the other hand, if you want to increase the risk of heart diseaseweakened bonesprostate cancer, while contributing more generously to deforestation, habitat loss, global carbon emissions and water usage, while also minimising the number of times you are insulted by Piers Morgan,

…drink cow.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to share.
Pea milk article coming soon.

Let cows live as cows, please.


This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more vegan/plant-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives!