An A-Z for a world which has to change.

In the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic which threatens many lives, we need to remember that this is just one of several global crises we face which will change our world in profound ways. All these challenges require us to alter the way we think and the way we tell our story.

Here is a suggested A-Z of some of what we will need to draw on:

Adaptability: We have a tremendous capacity to adapt to changed circumstances and innovate but only as long as we feel safe and our basic needs are met. Through education, we can nurture our capacity for change but we also need to ensure that the people who face the most disruption get the most support.

Basic Income: in a crisis, it is clear how essential it is to protect every citizen’s basic income. Human welfare shouldn’t be conditional, and it shouldn’t take a disaster for us to see the benefit of providing everyone with the security of an acceptable minimum standard of living which allows them to participate in society and withstand economic shocks and crises.

Care: Our economy and culture need to shift permanently towards valuing caring and nurturing at least as much as production and consumption. An ‘economy of care’ would mean making different choices and investing in different priorities; the care and education of our youngest, oldest and most vulnerable for a start.

Co-operation: Acquisitiveness, selfishness and competition are of little use to us in a crisis. Working together for the common good is clearly the only way to address the challenges we face. We need to develop a culture and practice of co-operation and build the structures which can hard wire it into our society and economy.

Democracy: We cannot put democracy on hold bescause difficult decisions need to be made. We need to develop new forms of participation and informed deliberation which empower people and locate accountability and decision-making at the level where they can be most effective, whether global or local.

Economy: Our economy should serve human needs of survival and flourishing as well as planetary sustainability. It must be built on principles of care, equality, co-operation and solidarity and we have to factor in all the consequences of production, consumption and distribution in our investment decisions.

Equality: Our economic and social policies need to be based on an assumption of the equal value, equal rights and basic entitlements of every human being on the planet and a recognition of the injustice of prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia, hatred and inequalities of all kinds.

Food poverty: Public policy should consign every variety of poverty to history: food poverty, energy poverty, housing poverty, transport poverty, rural poverty, digital exclusion etc.

Global politics: The greatest challenges we face don’t respect national borders and cannot be tackled by any single state. Global challenges require a democratic global level of politics not beholden to national governments. Global structures like the United Nations need to be strengthened and democratised.

Growth: It is not sustainable to keep increasing production and consumption without end. We need to find ways to achieve a steady state economy which can meet human needs and support human progress in ways which are compatible with long term life on Earth.

Homelessness: Rough sleeping and homelessness are an affront to a civilised society, and we have the means to end this form of poverty, and others, if we choose to.

Inclusion: Wealth and power need to be distributed more equally and we need to remove barriers to access and participation to ensure that everyone can play a part in society.

Investment: Spending on public services, health and education are not drains on the public purse but investments which pay for themselves many times over. The way we value the returns on our investments need to take full account of the human, social and environmental costs and benefits.

Jobs: We need to redefine the value of work and its place in our lives, by sharing it more fairly and resetting the balance between constructive and nurturing purposes and destructive or unsustainable ones.

Knowledge: Our education system needs to value the knowledge and skills which people need to address the crises we face. We all need the political, cultural, scientific, economic and emotional literacy which will support a good understanding of our complex and interdependent world and the skills to make it work for everyone.

Localism: Every global crisis is experienced at a personal and local level and our understanding of the global must be rooted in our commitment to the local. We need to be citizens of somewhere to understand the challenges being faced by others elsewhere and everywhere. Globalization has brought many benefits but it can make us vulnerable and overdependent on systems beyond our control. We need to build resilient, self-sustaining communities around us.

Markets: Markets have a role in allocating resources, but they don’t deliver a fairer society. Public health, vaccines and treatments, education and social welfare should not be seen as commodities to be traded. There are many other essentials which cannot be left to the vagaries of the market.

Mutuality: The principle that we are all prepared to contribute to caring for others because we know they will contribute to caring for us can be applied to more than just the National Health Service. The idea of mutual aid makes sense in every context, at both the personal and social level, and it inspires some of the most creative grassroots community responses to our current crisis.

Nationalism: Love of country does not justify mistrust, prejudice or hatred, xenophobia or exceptionalism. National identities and values need to be seen as nesting within a shared human identity and universal values and any national sentiment should be capable of including everyone.

Openness: In a democracy, people need to have access to what the decision makers know and the reasoning for particular policies needs to be scrutinized and open to challenge. Transparency and accountability are essential in an open, democratic society.

Politics: A healthy civic life requires all of us to take part in discussion and deliberation and help make choices. Politics belongs to every citizen and should not be the preserve of a few leaders or representatives. We need to make it possible for everyone to have a voice, to engage meaningfully in the conversation about our future and help to shape it.

Production: Our productive capacity needs to prioritise what is socially useful and life-enhancing. If, in a crisis, we can convert production from weapons to life-saving medical technology, this begs questions about our priorities before the crisis.

Quality of life: Indicators such as GDP and measures of growth do not properly reflect human well-being or happiness We need to redefine what constitutes a good life and a good society and place this at the heart of public policy.

Questioning: We need to explore and define the challenges we face in order to tackle them. Secrecy and ignorance breed mistrust and irrationality and the antidote to prejudice and superstition is open, well-informed and critical public discourse.

Rationality: The truth matters, even if it is a provisional and partial account of reality, and we need mechanisms to establish and propagate it, particularly in the face of propaganda and fake news.

Resilience: Change can be sudden and difficult, particularly in a crisis, and making the transition to a different social and economic order will require practical and psychological preparation. Once individuals understand the power of working together, their communities can develop their collective resilience.

Solidarity: Looking out for others is in our self-interest and real solidarity is built on the commitment and determination of individuals. When we stand with others in challenging injustice or suffering, we are also setting a standard for what we expect of and for ourselves.

State: We need to be able to act collectively at the global, national regional and local level and hold to account those who exercise power on our behalf. We need a vision of the active and interventionist state; protecting, empowering and liberating people rather than being oppressive or bureaucratic.

Sustainability: The interests of future generations and our planet’s finite capacity for renewal should be factored in to all our decisions about production and consumption in the here and now.

Trust: Trust is an essential currency in all the transactions of an open and democratic society. In our complex and interdependent world, we need to be able to trust in the expertise, honesty and good intentions of others. We also need to learn to be worthy of trust ourselves.

Universalism: If equality is one of our key values, we need to ensure that our entitlements are universal rather than building barriers and placing conditions on who should have access to the social benefits of citizenships. Universal income should join universal health care, childcare and education as social entitlements for all citizens.

Value: A crisis forces us to re-evaluate what matters most. When this crisis subsides, we will need to hold on to what we have learnt about what we really value and use this to help shape our future.

War: We can and should mobilise phenomenal resources in ‘fighting’ for human survival, human health and human development. However, conflicts over territory and resources will never be properly resolved through violence. The only ‘wars’ we should be engaging in are against poverty, disease, ignorance, inequality and injustice.

Wealth: We need to recognise the injustice of glaring inequalities in wealth distribution and start by defining what all people need. Accumulated resources and power are of little value if they’re not used for the purpose of addressing human concerns.

Xenophobia: There are many ways in which humans are different from each other but what we have in common is so much more important. If we allow difference to justify building barriers and promoting prejudice, mistrust or hatred we are on a path which leads to injustice, violence and war.

Young people: The future is where we will all spend the rest of our lives and the young have the biggest stake in it. Young people regularly demonstrate their concern about the future consequences of our actions, or inaction, and they need to be full partners in developing the policies which can safeguard the future.

Zeitgeist: By learning the lessons from the crises we face we can shape a new spirit of the age based on what we really value.

The world will never be the same after this crisis. It’s already clear that things won’t just get back to ‘normal’, and neither should they. From A to Z, everything will change, and it is up to us to ensure that change is for the better. Right now, we can only sketch out the outline of where we’re going and describe in broad terms the tools we will need. We need to get through this and learn the lessons about what has to change.

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

Decarbonising education (march 2020)


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Decarbonising education.

The climate emergency is a global reality and the large scale catastrophic weather events we face on a regular basis remind us that it is affecting us in the here and now, while also threatening far more serious impacts in the future.

Such a crisis calls for urgent action on a global scale, going well beyond what is currently planned. There need to be more ambitious targets and more rapid progress in reducing CO2 emissions and our dependency on fossil fuels.

Around the world, young people have been central to the campaign for change. Within the UK student movement, two of the key organisations are the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) and Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK). UKSCN and SOS-UK have jointly drafted a Climate Emergency Education Bill which outlines how education policy could start to address the climate crisis.

The campaign for this Bill, called ‘Teach the Future’ ( is led by students, supported by Nadia Whittome MP and other members of parliament across the main political parties. I attended the launch of the proposed Bill a couple of weeks ago on behalf of the Association of Colleges and heard from some of the student campaigners who helped to shape it. Many of them are college students who are active across a range of environmental issues, working to raise awareness within their communities as part of programmes such as Friends of the Earth’s excellent ‘My World My Home’. They told me that the message is being well received by their peers. Their clear understanding of the scale of the problem and their commitment to bringing about change are impressive. But while 68% of students say they want to learn more about these issues, only 4% overall feel that they know enough about climate change.

The Bill combines urgency with pragmatism, calling for:

  • A review of how the English education system prepares students for the climate and ecological crises.
  • The inclusion of the climate and ecological crises in teacher training and development.
  • A national climate emergency youth voice fund and a youth climate endowment fund.
  • A commitment that all new education buildings will be net-zero from 2022 and existing education buildings to be net-zero by 2030.

Given the scale and impact of the climate crisis, these measures would be a modest contribution to the kind of transformative change which is necessary. Many other countries have already given climate education a higher priority within the curriculum.

The Teach the Future campaign is a great example of young people engaging constructively with the democratic process and prioritising one of the most pressing issues of the day with a high degree of scientific and political literacy. The call for a curriculum which prepares students to tackle this global challenge puts young people at the centre of a wider debate about the purpose and values of their education. Learning more about the causes of climate change and the environmental impact of human activity will lead to a better understanding of other major global challenges we face. It also raises questions about the sustainability of a social, economic and political model which depends on ever growing production and consumption but fails to meet the human needs of so many and tolerates stark inequalities.

The campaign has moved to its next phase with a meeting scheduled with the Education Secretary and it is in all our interests that the Bill’s proposals are taken seriously and lead to positive action. As the UK prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, we need this campaign’s sense of urgency to be sustained and to help shape a more ambitious agenda for change, in education and across society.

See also:

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)


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The mighty pencil

The mighty pencil

It’s just a pencil

Making a mark in a specific place

On a specific piece of paper

On a specific day.

It only takes a second or two,

No time at all.

Such a simple thing.

But that pencil mark

In that place

On that paper

On that day

Is a momentous political act

Which can change the world.

That pencil mark can channel everything you know and care about

And your hope for a better future.

It won’t give you everything you want,

It’s not the only way to make change,

But don’t let anyone tell you it’s worthless.

It’s not a TV show, it’s not a foregone conclusion and they’re not ‘all the same’.

That pencil mark connects you to all the others making a similar mark,

It’s your transmission belt to a power beyond your own.

So, on that day, in that place, on that paper,

Wield your mighty pencil.






See also:

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)

The Mathematics of Survival (Apr 2017)

Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

Seeking refuge in poetry (Sep 2015)

Familiale (Jacques Prévert) (Mar 2019)

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Knowledge-rich and skills-rich

We can learn a lot from the telly. Skills competitions like ‘Bake Off’ and ‘Strictly’ and quiz shows like ‘University Challenge’ and ‘Mastermind’ are among the most popular programmes on TV.

These shows fall into two main camps, reflecting a skills / knowledge divide. But both types speak to our deep interest in both learning and skills.

‘Bake Off’, ‘Strictly’ and other skills-based competitions celebrate the ‘doing’. We are shown both the process and the product of the contestants’ learning and the purpose is clear: to make something delicious to certain specifications or to perform something entertaining in a particular style or tradition. The purpose, the process and the product are all ‘in the room’; we see the point of it all and we get a sense of the learning journey the contestants have been on, often by watching them practice and struggle. We also know that they didn’t develop these skills purely for the show, they are useful beyond the competition.

In contrast, ‘University Challenge’ or ‘Mastermind’ seem to be celebrations of pure ‘knowing’. The contestants are tested on their recall of a range of discrete facts in a way which is disconnected from their usefulness. While we can admire their performance in accessing this knowledge, the purpose and process of acquiring it are not ‘in the room’ and are not shared with us. We assume that the contestants can recall the names of composers, artists and writers because they have some interest in their work, but none of that is shown. Contestants may well prepare for general knowledge quizzes, but presumably the quiz is not the main reason they know about subatomic particles or Chinese dynasties. Their general knowledge is the product of a useful broad general education and what we are watching is an entertaining side-effect of that learning rather than its actual purpose.

In their various ways, all these shows are celebrating learning by showing us how it changes people. In Ofsted terms, the skills competition has clear ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’ as well as demonstrating the ‘impact’ of learners’ performance. The quiz show is a bit less transparent; the performances may be impressive, but we would need to dig a little deeper to see the connection between ‘impact’, ‘implementation’ and original ‘intent’. Quiz performance, like exam performance, is a limited, though useful, proxy for the change which education seeks to bring about. Incidentally, it’s that ‘digging a little deeper’ into purpose and process which schools and colleges are likely to see more of under the new inspection framework.

Do these shows confirm a clear divide between practical and theoretical learning; the ‘vocational’ and the ‘academic’? I don’t think so. The fluent and skilful performances we see in the skills competitions are underpinned by plenty of prior knowledge which has been laid down by the contestants over time; knowledge about ingredients, tools and genres for instance. And the apparently disconnected knowledge and concepts being displayed in the quiz shows come from a meaningful context and can contribute to useful practical action such as solving problems and making new things.

The distinction between acquiring knowledge and developing skills is deeply embedded in our thinking. The ancient Greeks regarded ‘episteme’ or theoretical knowledge as quite independent from ‘techne’ or craft skill. The 20th century British philosopher Gilbert Ryle brought them a little closer to each other by describing them as two types of knowing which he called ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’, or ‘declarative’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge. The procedural will tend to be more specific and involve more senses because it is more ‘hands-on’. It is possible to go further and argue for a completely unified model where all knowledge is defined broadly as a capacity to ‘get things right’. The issue continues to provoke lively debate but however we choose to describe the relationship, it is clear that knowledge and skill are highly interlinked and interdependent in education as in life.

Assumptions about knowledge and skill also shape the way we describe our educational programmes. Terms such as ‘academic’, ‘applied’, ‘general’, ‘vocational’ and ‘technical’ suggest a spectrum ranging from the knowledge-rich ‘academic’ to the skills-rich ‘technical’. But as soon as we start to examine the content of each type of course and what students on them actually do, some of these distinctions start to blur. For instance, there’s no doubt that the new T Levels will require a great deal of knowledge acquisition while also having a very substantial work-based component. On the other hand, A Level subjects require students to demonstrate a wide range of subject specific and more general skills, such as essay writing.

 This labelling of qualifications suffers from ‘jingle-jangle’ (no, not the fictional street drug from the American TV series ‘Riverdale’). ‘Jingle’ is the use of one term to describe different things and ‘jangle’ is when different terms are used to describe the same thing. So ‘general qualification’ is a fairly ‘jingly’ term covering a range of very different courses from an Applied General in Business to an A Level in Philosophy. On the other hand, the terms ‘Vocational’ and ‘Technical’ are often used in a ‘jangly’ way. According to the government, Technical qualifications require “the acquisition of both a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry”, a definition which could serve equally well for vocational qualifications. Inevitably, the noise of all this jingling and jangling can get in the way of understanding the role of qualifications.

These labels are also used to define the purposes of qualifications and sometimes to place those purposes on a pedestal. For instance, the current review of qualifications at level 3 and below in England talks in terms of qualifications being designed to ‘lead directly to a clearly defined outcome’ and ‘delivering on their purpose’ which is either employment (for T Levels) or further study (for A Levels). At this point, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that qualifications do not ‘deliver’ outcomes. They are taken by students, who then use them for a range of purposes in the real world based on their value and currency. The qualification outcome represents something useful about what the student knows and can do, but in practice, the qualification market, the labour market and individual learner journeys do not provide uniform or linear routes. Plenty of A level students don’t progress to higher education and plenty of vocational and technical students do – this is evidence of the value of those qualifications, not a sign of their failure.

Take a graded piano exam or a driving test; designed to accredit your ability to do something to a particular standard. Passing the test does not carry with it any expectation or requirement to play the piano in public or drive a car regularly, and the qualification is not judged in terms of how many professional pianists or drivers are ‘delivered’. And what of the Performing Arts student who becomes a lawyer or the Mediaeval History graduate who becomes a banker – did their qualifications ‘deliver’ for them?

If the implied polarity between knowledge and skill doesn’t make sense at the course level, it’s even less helpful at the human level. Labelling students as ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ based on the type of course they are on feels like categorising them as either a ‘knower’ or a ‘doer’. This does everyone a disservice and only limits our concept of we are capable of.

For education to fully develop our capacities, it needs to do justice to the full range of possibilities and provide all students with the opportunity to both know important and interesting things and do important and interesting things without seeing these as separate spheres.

And yet further education is often described as the ‘skills sector’ tasked with ‘delivering skills’ – as if they could be detached from knowledge and passed on free of that troublesome burden. No educational project involves a transfer of useful knowledge; it can’t be knowledge-free. And we would not be doing our job as educators if we offered a ‘knowledge-poor’ curriculum.

But although calling for a knowledge-rich curriculum for all post-16 students should not be controversial it still feels a bit subversive. And there are risks. In emphasising the importance of knowledge, we need to guard against the fetishization of facts. Acquiring knowledge in disconnected gobbets is of very limited use. What makes knowledge useful is the connecting and reconnecting of the things we know to each other, and the fluency with which we can mobilise those mental schemas of linked knowledge which help us understand, recall and apply.

Having agreed that knowledge is vital, we then need to ask how we select which knowledge we value most and which knowledge is actually most useful. This can require us to challenge historical power structures and received wisdom to make room for different perspectives. But when we ask “whose knowledge, serving whose interests?” we are challenging current curricula, not the importance of knowledge itself.

Planning any educational programme necessarily involves carefully selecting essential or useful knowledge and thinking about how it builds on prior knowledge and paves the way for the acquisition of more knowledge. But arguing that knowing stuff is all there is, is a bit like saying ‘subatomic particles are all there is’. It may be true at one level but even knowing about all the subatomic particles in the universe wouldn’t help to explain the complex interactions and dynamic change which they are involved in at higher levels.

Running alongside this, we should also be advocating an entitlement to a skills-rich curriculum. Doing, applying, creating, putting into practice, developing, practising and refining in all sorts of contexts are key to learning. We should not regard practical, applied or contextual learning as being of a lower order.

In making the case for a more creative, skills-rich curriculum we should guard against claiming that focusing on knowledge necessarily implies irrelevant content, a decontextualized curriculum, rote learning or high-stakes tests. These things don’t automatically flow from a commitment to knowledge and ‘skills-boosting’ doesn’t have to be paired with ‘knowledge-bashing’.

We should also avoid making claims about practical skills which ‘embody’ them or locate them beyond normal learning. For instance, the skill of a brilliant pianist or craftsperson may appear to be located ‘in their hands’. While it may have shaped their physical development and the habits of performance may seem like second nature, this is still a learnt fluency, developed through intelligent practice and informed by knowledge and culture. Claiming these skills are ineffable just mystifies them and gets in the way of trying to understand them or help people acquire them.

Being able to do stuff requires both knowledge and skill. Trying to separate out the acquisition of skill as if it is a completely different type of learning – as in the ‘skills strategy’ or the ‘skills sector’ – is like trying to detach a current from the water which it travels through. They can be described separately but are inseparable in practice. While it may be useful to understand the components of a skill, such atomised competences are not much use in isolation. Becoming skilled can’t be achieved through the simple accumulation of competences, and becoming a skilled engineer, a skilled historian or a caring, responsible citizen is an emergent process which can’t be achieved rapidly or be measured on a simple scale.

So, rather than building barriers between knowing and doing, ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ should go hand in hand, making connections, emphasising the value of ‘learning by doing’, ‘knowing for doing’ and ‘doing as learning’ as ways of building on our previous knowledge and experience.

Whatever their starting point and wherever they are on their lifelong learning journey, our students need both knowledge and skills and their education should cherish and cultivate both. If we want the best possible curriculum, we need to make sure it nurtures our ‘dancer’, ‘baker’ and ‘mastermind’ capacities and possibilities by being rich in both knowledge and skills.

Originally published in the Times Educational Supplement in April 2019 here. You can also hear Eddie discuss knowledge and skill with Sarah Simons in an FE podcast on 25th April here.

See also:

What is powerful knowledge? (Aug 2015)

Skill shortage, training shortage or job shortage? (Feb 2016)

A short reading list:

Pat Ainley, ‘Class and Skill’ (1993)

John Dewey, ‘Experience and Education’ (1938)

Harold Entwistle, ‘Education, Work and Leisure’ (1970)

E.D. Hirsch, ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ (2016)

Paul Hirst, ‘Knowledge and the Curriculum’ (1975)

Richard Johnson, ‘‘Really useful knowledge’: 1790–1850’ (1988) in ‘Culture and Processes of Adult Learning’ (1993).

Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’ (1949)

Leesa Wheelahan, ‘Not just skills: what a focus on knowledge means for vocational education.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies (2015)

Terry Wrigley, ‘‘Knowledge’, Curriculum and Social Justice’, The Curriculum Journal (2018)

Michael Young et al, ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice’ (2014)

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‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s novels are always fascinating and rewarding and her latest, Unsheltered (2019) is no exception.

We follow two stories over a hundred years apart and set in the same location; Vineland, New Jersey, a town originally established as a utopian community in the late 19th century by visionary entrepreneur and autocratic control freak Charles Landis.

In today’s world, Willa and her family are threatened by a full set of very modern challenges including unemployment, casualisation, childcare, costly health care, collapsing housing and fragile mental health. She and her close family, ostensibly ‘middle class’, are living on the edge of absolute poverty without the protection of universal welfare support and assumptions of steady progress which she expected as a baby boomer who tried to do everything right. As the decline continues, Willa is also gradually uncovering the story of the pioneering woman naturalist, Mary Treat, who lived in the same street, and possibly the same house, over a century earlier and is a genuine historical character. All of this is overshadowed by a growing awareness of the unsustainability of the current economic system and the rise of a xenophobic demagogue towards the U.S. presidency; a man who boasts the he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.

Back in the 1871 incarnation of Vineland, its founder’s rhetoric of freedom and opportunity is already transparently ‘fake news’ given the reality of the town’s yawning inequality.  We see Vineland through the eyes of the fictional Thatcher Greenwood; new High School science teacher and enthusiastic advocate of Darwinian evolutionary theory. He befriends Mary Treat and is deeply impressed by her intense commitment to observation and rationality and the fact that she is in scientific correspondence with his hero Charles Darwin and writes journal articles on entomology and botany. With the support of Mary, Thatcher feels able to challenge the blinkered and obscurantist opposition to Darwin’s theory coming from Vineland’s leading citizens and eventually finds himself at the centre of a sensational and historic murder trial involving the shooting of an unarmed man in broad daylight.

Before the murder or the trial, Thatcher is drawn into a public debate about natural selection with his employer, the blinkered and dogmatic High School Principal, Professor Cutler. The confrontation, chaired by Charles Landis himself, is framed as ‘Darwin versus Decency’ and designed to expose Thatcher as a dangerous Darwinian who seeks to undermine the accounts of holy scripture. Cutler and Landis are hoping for an excuse not to renew Thatcher’s teaching contract.

Thatcher is encouraged by Mary Treat and his spirited sister in law, Polly, to hone his arguments and present them as succinctly and persuasively as possible and he rises to the occasion:

“I would like to make four statements that will offend no one in this room… First principle. Individuals within a population are variable… Second principle. Traits in their variation are inherited…”

Thatcher admits that the mechanism for this inheritance is not known and suggests an ‘elixir for transmitting character’ in the absence the science of genetics. This draws scorn from Cutler, who says: “I do not like the sound of that. I do not. It makes me think of a witches brew” and booms that characters are only transmitted because God wishes it so.

Thatcher continues:

Next I offer the third principle which is death. Death stalks us all!… Into this world more lives are born than are granted to live…

Here is the last of my four principles: survival is not haphazard. Creatures differ in their ability to survive, not by chance but owing to traits inherited from their progenitors. And with these four declarations of the obvious. I’m finished!”

This brilliant set piece debate is the core of the novel and is mirrored by some less formal, but equally lucid, 21st century debates about values, growth and sustainability between members of Willa’s family with their different perspectives.

Each story sheds light on the other and the parallels are never forced or contrived, In their various ways, the people in both narratives are facing the prospect of losing some of the shelter of their lives; with comforting certainties withdrawn and exposure to new ideas, new conflicts and social fracture of various sorts. They are starting to piece together the new social relations which they will need to confront a new reality.

Mary is instrumental in helping Thatcher see clearly what is necessary:

“…your pupils depend on it, Thatcher…they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”

Thatcher adds:

“To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.”

In the twenty first century, Willa reflects on human learning as she watches her grandson start to master the skill of standing up:

“First they would stagger. Then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”

In the late nineteenth century, denying the evidence for the mechanism of evolution might provide short term comfort for some, but this ‘shelter’ would become increasingly difficult to sustain. And today, turning away from the reality of environmental and social breakdown and the drastic action needed may also offer us a little respite, but ignoring the enormity of the crisis is no solution. In order to survive, we need to both understand the world as it is and start thinking about building a better one. Pretending that we can shelter from the truth just puts things off and makes the transition more difficult.

Unsheltered gives us a humane perspective on many of the challenges we face today. As we grow up and learn to stand, stagger and face the crises and confusions of our world, it offers us the consolation of clarity and love.

See also:

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

Primo Levi on work and education (May 2016)

‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates (February 2016)

Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? (December 2015)

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‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers.

Richard Powers is an extraordinary writer. If you’ve not yet discovered his novels, I strongly recommend them. He tackles big ideas which concern all of us while at the same time telling compelling stories about complex and conflicted characters who have a rich inner life and develop over time. He writes beautifully about science and music among other things and I find myself returning to the themes of his books long after finishing them. Reading a Richard Powers novel is like taking a comprehensive course in both the reason and the emotion of a given set of human challenges.

The Overstory is a kind of meta-narrative of a meta-life form; specifically old-growth forest, in all its richness and diversity. This is built on several overlapping and interlocking human ‘understories’ told at a human level while also being connected to the bigger scale and longer time-span of tree-life.

This is not a book about trees, neither is it nature writing. It’s an attempt to demonstrate, through a web of human and tree stories, that the Earth’s living things are highly interdependent and that the way we are using our planet’s resources is destructive and unsustainable. The focus on trees and forests and the threat they face is a means to make the case.

We seem to be aware that we are careering towards environmental catastrophe – but what are we to do about it? The principal human characters of The Overstory are all grappling with this question and, for various reasons, they are particularly tuned in to a tree-pace and a forest-level analysis. Among the cast, maverick researcher Patricia Westerford is one of the most persuasive advocates of the case; for instance in her teaching:

It’s a miracle, she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzamatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic-act. The secret of life: plants eat light, air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things… (p.124)

Apparently loosely based on the Canadian professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard, Patricia writes a seminal book The Secret Forest:

All winter she has struggled to describe the joy of her life’s work and the discoveries that have solidified in a few short years: how trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. How they care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviours through the networked soil. How they build immune systems as wide as a forest…

Something marvellous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together they form vast trading networks of goods, services and information…

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…

…Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees… (p.218)

Environmental activists Nick and Olivia, or Watchman and Maidenhair as they rename themselves, spend several months living high up in a giant redwood called Mimas, in an effort to prevent loggers from felling it. While there, they read Patricia’s book The Secret Forest:

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor…A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways…But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes… (p.268)

Testifying as an expert witness to a hearing which could halt logging on Federal land in Oregon, Patricia

…describes how a rotting log is home to orders of magnitude more living tissue than the living tree… The judge asks what living things might need a dead tree.

‘Name your family. Your order. Birds, mammals, other plants. Tens of thousands of invertebrates. Three quarters of the region’s amphibians need them. Almost all the reptiles. Animals that keep down the pests than kill other trees. A dead tree is an infinite hotel…

Rot adds value to a forest. The forests here are the richest collections of biomass anywhere. Streams in old growth have five to ten times more fish. People could make more money harvesting mushrooms and fish and other edibles, year after year, than they do by clear-cutting every half dozen decades…’

‘I’ve looked at your book’ the judge says, ‘I never imagined! Trees summon animals and make them do things? They remember? They feed and take care of each other?’

In the dark-paneled courtroom her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety an surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature. (p.285)

Each of the human protagonists of The Overstory finds their own way to speak and act for the trees, the forest, human and non-human life on Earth. They are not always consistent or effective, but their collective story succeeds in shifting our attention from the individual to the system and onwards to planetary survival.

We have no long-term future if we cannot think long-term and act sustainably at the global level or if we believe we can continue to destroy so many of our planet’s ecosystems without consequences. As Richard Powers has said about the natural world: “competition is not separable from separate forms of co-operation”. This book is full of important lessons about trees and forests and also about ourselves; lessons which hold the key to our survival as a species.

See also:

The social origins of human thinking (Mar 2016)

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Familiale (Jacques Prévert)

The mother is knitting

The son is fighting

She thinks it quite natural the mother

And the father what is he doing the father?

He’s doing business

His wife is knitting

His son is fighting

He’s doing business

He thinks it quite natural the father

And the son and the son

What does he think the son?

He thinks nothing absolutely nothing the son

The son his mother is knitting his father is doing business he is fighting

When he’s finished fighting

He will do business with his father

The fighting carries on the mother carries on she is knitting

The father carries on doing business

The son is killed he doesn’t carry on

The father and the mother go to the graveyard

They think it natural the father and the mother

Life carries on life with knitting fighting doing business

Business fighting knitting fighting

Business business and business

Life with the graveyard

Jacques Prévert –  Paroles (1946)

translated by Eddie Playfair, 2019

Some issues translating ‘Familiale’

When I looked for a version of Jacques Prévert’s anti-war poem ‘Familiale’ in English, I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of the ones I found, even that of the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1958). So I had a go myself. Translating anything, especially poetry, requires give and take and there can be no final authoritative version as the choices made are often a matter of interpretation and taste.

With this poem, the inevitable big loss in translation is one of rhyme. There is no way of reproducing ‘père, mère, guerre, faire, affaires, cimetière’ as rhyming words in English. Once you accept that loss, it’s then about trying to make up for it with similarly simple, everyday sing-song language which communicates the universal message and works in repetition.

The choice of ‘knitting’ for ‘faire du tricot’ and ‘fighting’ for ‘faire la guerre’ was based on their directness. ‘Doing the knitting’ and ‘making war’ or ‘going to war’just didn’t work for me and I felt that Ferlinghetti’s ‘fights the war’ and ‘finishes the war’ weren’t quite right either. I realise that there is some resulting ambiguity about what kind of fighting is being referred to if the word ‘war’ isn’t used. When it comes to ‘faire des affaires’ there’s no good substitute for ‘doing business’ but obviously ‘knitting, fighting and doing business’ in English does break with the repetition of ‘faire, faire, faire…’ in the original.

I also thought carefully about using ‘carries on’ rather than ‘continues’ for the French ‘continue’ and decided to go for what I thought felt most conversational. With ‘think it’ rather than ‘find it’, it was about making the lines ‘What does the son think? / He thinks nothing’ work. ‘He finds..’ is not the same as ‘Il trouve que..’

Lots of difficult choices, but of course the joy of translation is that different versions can coexist.

See also:

Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

‘Five minutes after the air raid’ by Miroslav Holub (Nov 2013)

Seeking refuge in poetry (Sep 2015)

Poem: Corsica (Jul 2015)

‘Saying thank you’ – a poem for father’s day (Jun 2015)

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