Late Beethoven and Green Asparagus

What do the last string quartets written by Ludwig van Beethoven have in common with asparagus? No, this is not a joke with a punchline coming up. What it is, is a rhetorical question. Which is to ask whether classical chamber music is more important than food on the table. This plainly begs the question some may say, pointing to a prime example of petitio principii in terms of classical logic. Putting that aside for a moment, let me contend that my postulate is worthy and fit: the arts nourish our soul; comestibles keep us alive. Whether we really 'need' both is controvertible. We certainly consume both. Quite why we do that is because we value both. As ever, there is a price to be paid, not just in the sense of a bill to be met — so that working musicians on stage and farmers tending the fields can make a living — but also in terms of what stresses these activities put on the environment. 

Now this puts me in mind of a saying variously, if wrongly, attributed to Sitting Bull, Chief of the Sioux tribes or Chief Seattle, of the Suquamish tribes: "When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money." (For the record, the earliest instance is found in a collection of essays published in 1972 entitled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” In the chapter 'Conversations with North American Indians', Alanis Obomsawin uses these words, and is described as an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, about seventy miles northeast of Montreal. The saying became a motto. Since then it was rapidly taken up by environmental activists, famously by the organisation Greenpeace.)

As many of you reading this blog will know, I have lived in Germany since 1982, and took German citizenship last year. What concerns many farmers here is that the recent entry ban on Eastern European seasonal workers imposed because of the Corona pandemic brings a serious grievance into focus: the working conditions for the temporary harvest labourers in the fields of Germany are usually pretty miserable. The vast majority of well over a quarter of a million employees receive the statutory minimum wage, which is currently just short of 10€ per hour. The employer moreover deducts money for accommodation, among other things. Time and again, fraudulent calculations of piecework wages allow actual remuneration to fall below the prescribed minimum wage. Much accommodation is indescribably bad, with cramped shared rooms in containers, and run-down, unhygienic lavatories. These people have to work hard for this: lifting asparagus in all weathers. The working conditions in agriculture are simply neither attractive nor competitive. The large discounters here promise, for example, at least 12€ gross per hour for a job in sales or logistics. Physically, that is usually less demanding and cleaner than constantly bending over and working in a field in blazing sunlight. These are the reasons why only few people from Germany help out in the agricultural sector.

The same holds true back in the UK.The British farming industry currently needs to fill almost 100,000 picking jobs for fruit vegetables, otherwise a scarcity of fresh comestibles may become a reality, as produce is simply left to rot in the fields. Almost 100% of seasonal workers in Britain have traditionally come from eastern European countries such as Romania or Bulgaria. All efforts in recent years to induce British labourers to work the fields of that green and pleasant land have failed miserably. But all of this began pre-Brexit. And there is good anecdotal evidence of farms hiring a couple of hundred workers, of whom maybe four or five were Brits, only to see this tiny minority drop out suffering from acute symptoms of Fragum defatigatio on day two.

What, then, of the raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, which will ripen in May and June? The significant shortfall in workers from outside the UK is of huge concern to British farmers at present. It would seem that large farms have even considered chartering flights to bring in labour from eastern Europe, but these plans have been foiled by border restrictions and a more or less nationwide lockdown, the situation further compounded by grounded airlines. Flying in fruit pickers can not be the solution. It is rather like the flying Bishops of the Church of England who came into being in 1993 at the time of approval of the ordination of women to the priesthood.They were, just for the record, all male of course, and were charged with offering pastoral oversight to parishes which would not accept the ministry of women priests. There are so many people in the UK who are out of work and in need of an income. But has the tired old mantra of ‘get out and get a job’ ever held true?  And is there some kind of moral responsibility to the country where one lives and its economy? Should composers, whose income forecast for the rest of 2020 might well be as dire as many other individuals in many other branches or industries actually be forced to go out and lift asparagus or pick strawberries? Answers to these perhaps not so rhetorical questions I have none. A heads up: the blog New Utopias is simply food for thought. In this case, food on the plate. 

Thus, if farmers were to pay their temporary workers more, would they would find more local labour? And are there enough unskilled or indeed skilled people in Germany who would be interested in temporary jobs in agriculture? Well, large asparagus farms needing workers in four figure numbers at a stroke for their huge areas under cultivation are unlikely to find enough people locally. Smaller farms, on the other hand, will be able to fill their needs more easily. The irony or, if you will, simple fact is that consumers need not fear the consequences of harvest workers being paid more fairly. In the shops, the price of asparagus would only rise by a few cents. 

All this reminds me of an excellent cartoon some years back in the British satirical magazine "Private Eye", where the sign in the first frame has the words, emblazoned in large letters, 'Pick your own strawberries'. In the second frame we read 'Pick your own bloody strawberries'. 

More on Beethoven anon . . .

Manis javanica: The Pangolin Strikes Back (Part the First)

The Chinese pangolin is a mammal that is covered in scales and which resembles an armadillo but behaves more like an anteater. It is now a critically endangered species, but was commonly found in forests and grasslands across southern China, parts of Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The sheer scale (no pun intended) of poaching and trafficking has decimated the population. And despite protection measures, pangolin meat is still considered a delicacy, its scales also being used in traditional medicine. 

Manis javanica, to give it its biological name, has no defence against humans, lacking even teeth. The underside is soft and unprotected, and poachers often use dogs to find pangolins in their burrows and dig them out. When threatened by predators such as big cats, the pangolin quickly rolls into a tight, scale-covered ball.

Now the world has done the same. But the enemy without — the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — is such a small aggressor, one which can only be seen under an electron microscope, that every individual offers easy ingress. 

Many scientists claim that the virus jumped from an animal host, in this case a bat, to the pangolin as an intermediary host. One research team searched DNA and protein sequences isolated from pangolin tissues for similar strings in SARS-CoV-2. The researchers identified protein sequences in sick animals' lungs that were 91% identical to the human virus proteins. Moreover, the receptor binding domain of the spike protein from the pangolin coronavirus had only five amino acid differences from SARS-CoV-2, compared with 19 differences between the human and bat viral proteins. This evidence points to the pangolin as the most likely go-between host for the new coronavirus.

So why are pangolins still being sold at wet markets in China? Even a brief and superficial glance at Chinese historical writings from the Tang dynasty of 7th to 10th Century reveals that the meat of pangolins was believed to cause ailments, and not actually cure any. Apparently, it tastes bitter and was believed to be poisonous. “Beiji Qianjin Yaofang” (备急千金要方), a collection of prescriptions compiled by the alchemist Sun Simiao, advised in 652: “There are lurking ailments in our stomachs. So do not eat the meat of pangolins, because it may trigger them and harm us.” And in the 16th Century the “Bencao Gangmu” (本草纲目) a Compendium of Materia Medica, Li Shizhen, a herbalist, naturalist and physician, warned that people who eat pangolin are prone to “contract chronic diarrhoea, and then go into convulsion and get a fever.”

This is not the point to criticise an entire nation for failing to heed the warnings of ancient physicians. A fair target, however, is the inherent culture that legitimises the consumption of an animal we might do best to leave alone. It is the culture of status.

Pangolins are considered a delicacy in many Far East cultures. But it is being eaten to death, this unsustainable harvest fuelled by two factors: meat and myth. In Africa, pangolins are extensively hunted for bush meat. The main factor tipping the creature toward extinction, however, is its mythic power in traditional medicine. Pangolins are today highly prized in Vietnam and China, a result of a wholly unfounded belief that their blood and scales (which are actually made of keratin) are somehow medically beneficial. One might as well just chew one's fingernails. The pangolin is seen as a kind of walking medicine chest, and animals are being slaughtered mercilessly, ostensibly to cure everything from asthma to cancer.

The price of pangolin parts has thus soared, with scales now valued at about well over €1000 a pound. Here is the nub: given its exorbitant price, pangolin meat is seen as a status symbol. Pangolin-foetus soup (this is not for the faint-hearted) allegedly costs as much as €1500 a bowl; in some restaurants, it is possible to order a live pangolin, and have it delivered to your table, whereupon its throat is slit and its blood is added to your glass of wine. 

The pangolin however, that apparently defenceless creature, has just struck back. 

. . . to be continued


How shall we then live?

Let us posit that humankind will emerge the other side of the current crisis. The question that immediately arises is how our lives might be lived on what will ostensibly be a new shore. The title of this, the first, of many short articles on the blog New Utopias references a book by Francis A. Schaeffer "How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture." Published in 1983, it remains a strangely prescient text. His approach to Christian apologetics is a presuppositional one, the author maintaining that "most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society, the way that a child catches the measles", adding that "people with understanding realise that their suppositions should be 'chosen' after careful consideration of which world view is true".

So what do we presuppose? Which is to ask, what do we really need? Survival experts tell us that we can survive for three minutes without oxygen, for three hours without shelter, for three days without water, and for three weeks without food. This is the "rule of three". Readers can google it. Note that food is at the end of the list. 

But before this blog turns into some kind of dystopian vision, let us examine what Schaeffer wrote and note exactly what the author maintained. 

(Just to go off at a tangent for a moment, Schaeffer's own son, Frank, has been accused by many of ransoming his father's thinking in order to build a new platform for overtly political diatribes promulgated by today's right wing evangelical charismatic theologians.) 

Schaeffer starts with "The Roman Age", during which there were two perspectives on life. The Roman one was grounded in an infinite, absolute base of God. Schaeffer argues that the Christian perspective is a better one because the Roman Empire collapsed whereas Christianity continues to this day. In Chapter Two, on "The Middle Ages", his argument is simple: The pristine purity of the New Testament Church was corrupted during this era, those of faith struggling how to be in the world but not of the world, i.e., learning to live with material possessions, how to understand the relationship between church and state, and how best to approach the symbiosis of Christian and secular thought. Most important is the argument that Aquinas put reason on the same level as revelation and, moreover, introduced the Aristotelian emphasis on particulars. When dealing with "The Renaissance", Schaeffer opines that the secular thinkers of this period made man autonomous. The result is the familiar nature-grace dichotomy with nature "eating up" grace. Schaeffer claims that Renaissance thinkers were unable to find universals to give meaning to particulars. When describing "The Reformation" in the next chapter, the author's basic contention is that it corrected the distortions of the early church and substituted salvation by grace alone with salvation by works. 

But let us skip to Schaeffer on "The Revolutionary Age". Here, he believes that when countries like America that had experienced the Reformation finally achieved political freedom, the result was not chaos. Whereas with countries that lacked this reform base (such as Russia) the result was societal mayhem.

In the final chapters, on "The Scientific Age", "The Age of Personal Peace and Affluence", and "The Alternative", Schaeffer largely explores the notion of a closed system with man as part of the machine, and how modern science has produced racism, genetic engineering, determinism and the use of drugs to control behaviour. He holds that humanism, which he feels has replaced Christianity as the dominant world view, has only two values: personal peace and affluence. 

Finally, Schaefer claims that since Christianity no longer provides a mould for normative culture, something must take its place to stave off chaos. The vacuum, he argues, is authoritarianism, maintaining that the form this takes will be by government by an elite rather than a dictatorship, will achieve its goals by the use of drugs, genetic engineering, and manipulation of the mass media, and will change the laws of the land through the courts rather than through the legislatures.

I trust I have not strayed to far from the initial thought posited: how shall we live, i.e., what do we really "need" to live. The reason for providing readers an admittedly late precis of Schaeffer's book was to provide some context of where we are today. The question has changed, I think, from "how shall we live?" to "how shall we survive?" And we now need to examine to what extent we will be forced to live different lives, this in parallel to what degree we can just carry on as before. 

Next to come "Manis javanica: The Pangolin Strikes Back"