The Steampunk Diet

I picked up on an interesting paper from one of the comments on Chris Smaje’s blog. It describes some historical research on urban working class British diets of the mid-Victorian period, which, it turns out were not quite as bad as has been assumed. The authors, Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham, make the surprising assertion that:

“With the exception of family planning and antibiotics, the vast edifice of twentieth century healthcare has generated little more than tools to suppress symptoms of the degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards”.

Why is this of interest? The broadest reason is that the past can shed light on present-day issues and that our picture of the past subtly infuses our understanding of the present. Therefore any improvement in our knowledge of the past is at least potentially relevant. In other words, History is a valuable discipline. However, there are other reasons why this particular bit of revisionism is interesting.

The gist of the paper is that between 1850 and 1880 a window of circumstance opened which resulted in, the authors say, “a generation … with probably the best standards of health ever enjoyed by a modern state”. The changes which opened the window included (but were not limited to) technical improvements in agricultural productivity (for example changes in rotation systems) and the arrival of the railways which enabled transport of fresh produce into the cities. The changes which closed the window included the increased availability of commercial quantities of imported food, the greater availability of sugar and processed foods which contain it, and the availability of mass produced tobacco products. The period from 1880-1900 saw a rapid decline in public health, down to the dire state which we now think of as simply ‘Victorian’.

The life expectancy statistics for the mid-Victorian generation appear to show that they died early. The statistic which is usually given for ‘life expectancy’ is an average of all lifespans, including very early deaths (and the reduction in infant mortality really is an undisputed major achievement of the 20th century). However, if infant mortality is removed from the figures (i.e. the average is of only those who survived the dangerous start of life), the mid-Victorian generation lived pretty much the same length of time as we do. Furthermore, the authors argue, they had a greater health-span than us. That’s to say they tended to stay robust and active until shortly before death and didn’t suffer several years of frail and degenerating tail-off as we have come to expect for ourselves. The authors attribute all this to the diet which was circumstantially imposed on them, and which bears some resemblance to the famous ‘Mediterranean diet’ or even the broader and less cultish versions of the ‘Palaeolithic diet’.

Of course I lack the background to make any sort of judgement as to the validity of this paper, but history is an empirical discipline which roots out new evidence, and 19th century Britain has plenty of documentation for the rooting, so for the sake of argument I think it’s reasonable to assume that Clayton and Rowbotham have indeed successfully revised our understanding of the health of urban mid-Victorians.

In which case what is most striking is the sheer accidentalness of the thing. With all our enormously enhanced knowledge and the capacity for public education which our mass media and schooling give us, public health in the developed world can’t even equal historical happenstance. This reminder of our limits when it comes to directing the course of history is a humbling but useful thought. It should be borne in mind both as a counterweight to hubris when things seem to be going well and a palliative to despond when things appear to be going badly.

Furthermore, some of the changes in diet which closed the window of superb health were seen at the time, and by later historians, as good for public health. Not only, it seems, are we unable to consciously point history in a good direction, but we don’t necessarily know what a good direction looks like!

Finally, it almost goes without saying that this can be chalked up as a counter-example to the implicit assumption that everything which is chronologically later is automatically better in all important respects. Perhaps technological development only equates with improvement up to a certain point beyond which it is mere elaboration or even dis-improvement. I am not saying this is always so, I’m merely suggesting that, in essence, things are vastly more complicated than we tend to think.


I’m quite prepared to accept the historical revisionism of Clayton and Rowtham’s paper but I’d be interested to have a second opinion on the practical inferences they draw. The mid-Victorians were much more physically active than us – 3,000 to 4,000 Calories per day estimated by the authors (i.e up to twice as much as the contemporary sedentary worker). C & R argue that the health benefits of the mid-Victorian diet were down to  “micro- and phytonutrients at approximately ten times the levels considered normal today”.

This high level was caused not just by the quality of the food (fresh and organic avant la lettre) but also by the quantity – the amount needed to make up the difference between mid-Victorian energy expenditure and ours – rather than “five a day” it was more like “eleven or twelve a day”. They then go on to suggest that the lack of degenerative disease was caused by the superabundance of micronutients, and because of our smaller intake of food, even if we ate the same types and proportions of food we wouldn’t get enough micronutrients to obtain the benefits of the mid-Victorian diet. Therefore they recommend supplementation – which caused me to roll my eyes. They try to forestall criticism by harrumphing a bit about vitalism and saying of course the nutritional supplements currently available are scientifically incoherent and we’d have to do this properly.

Hmmm. Well, let me re-state that I’m not qualified to judge, but there are two reasons that I find this part of C & R’s argument less convincing than the descriptive historical sections.

The first is that they could be underplaying the possible benefit of the much higher levels of physical activity among the mid-Victorians. There is a ton of evidence about the health benefits of physical activity and we currently do nothing like enough of it (I’ve written a bit about this on a previous blog). It seems to me that the relations between nutrition,exercise, and metabolism are still not fully understood and also that C & R have accepted our current levels of sedentariness as intractable.

The second reason to be slightly unconvinced is that it is not necessarily superstitious vitalism to suggest that getting your micronutrients from actual fruit and veg might be better than taking a tablet. The reason is the imperfection of our current knowledge and the vast complexity of metabolic chemistry. (The salutary example is that of anti-oxidants). Yes, a great deal is known about nutrition and yes, that knowledge continues to improve, but the safest approach for any sort of public health intervention really has to be (yawn) to find ways to get people eating more fruit and veg and to move around more. Unfortunately, the way to do that might involve making large commercial concerns just a little bit more constrained, and rethinking personal transport in a radical way (“but I love my car! Waaaaaaaail! War on the motorist! Nanny state!” etc etc) …


Well obviously, Clayton and Rowbotham didn’t actually call it the steampunk diet of course. I’ve called it that because it sounds cute and I’d like the term to catch on – you heard it here first. Do I follow it myself? Well, yeah, sort of (and this is a diet which declares “sort of” to be just fine), and I do go in for waistcoats, Big Whiskers, and Long Brisk Walks, so there we are …

Thoughts on communication #2

Nobody is stupid, nobody is deluded. (Or at least, nobody should be called these words in any conversation which is intended to persuade). However, this is not quite as nicey-nicey as it sounds because …

… some people are misinformed, misled, over-confident, mis-educated, or find themselves in miscellaneous other circumstances which cause them to be wrong in specific circumstances or on specific topics.

But nobody is stupid or foolish and it is counterproductive to say that they are (even if it makes you feel ever so clever to do so).

Are those who describe other people, in public fora, as “deluded”, “confused” or some other variation on “stupid” really interested in being heard by such people, in persuading them to consider alternatives?

Or, for that matter are they really interested in anyone listening in on the conversation being persuaded? An audience to this sort of shouty “you iz stooooopid” talk can go one of two ways. They can think “how rude, the person they’re shouting at must have upset them in some deep way, so perhaps the person being yelled at is right”. Or they can feel “hey! This guy is calling someone stupid, so it’s ok to be agressive in the service of certain opinions – in fact to ally myself with those opinions shows how smart I am – yippee I can be obnoxious with a good conscience”.


Side observation: robust language and hyperbole can be much less offensive in real life, and in printed media, than the same words used on the net. At least I can imagine situations where someone could say to me “sheesh – you’re talking complete crap” and I’d reply, fairly unconcernedly “oh Yeah? So come on then – what’s crap about it?”. But that sort of language really stings on the net – it’s enough to put me off entirely a lot of the time. Which suggests that there are people it puts off all of the time.

On not owning a fridge

… nor a freezer, before you ask.

In a previous post I listed this as one of my ‘green behaviours’ – please don’t forget that I’m not telling other people what they should do, I’m describing some things that I do, and why I consider them to be ‘green’. So what on earth is ‘green’ about not owning a fridge?

Well it was never intended to have any particular implications or meaning. About – oh I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago – I noticed that I never seemed to have anything in the fridge apart from a bottle of milk, which seemed ridiculous. It was winter, so I thought I might as well turn the fridge off and do the studenty thing and keep the milk on the windowledge. To my surprise, when the next electricity bill came it was noticeably lower than expected. I had noticed the same thing, and felt equally surprised, when I’d changed the incandescents lightbulbs for compact fluorescents – I really hadn’t anticipated much of a difference.

These two little ‘experiments’ were, I think, what got me interested in the topic of energy – which is a very useful lens through which to view environmental issues. When I moved home, I sent my fridge to be disposed of and since 2007 haven’t even owned a switched-off one.


There are two strands which make up the argument as to why not owning a fridge is ‘green’.

1. Negawatts are cheaper than megawatts.

The delightful coinage ‘negawatts’ is a way of capturing the idea that “using x amount less electricity” is the equivalent of  “x amount we don’t need to generate”. Generating less is good because – oh, you know, emissions, security, expense. Using less electricity tends to be less expensive (of resources as well as money) than generating it. So given this, using less electricity (and other types of energy as well) should be a prime policy goal.

As I have argued previously, if you think something should be a policy goal then it demonstrates good faith to implement that policy in your own life, if possible.

2. The rise in the number single person households

This means a rise in the total number of appliances (and hence electricity usage), because of duplication. This is a key point – I’m not some sort of weird anti-refrigeration nut, it’s just that as a healthy single person, living alone, in a temperate climate, who doesn’t count cooking as a hobby, I don’t feel I need a fridge all to myself. Of course I do benefit enormously from refrigeration (shops, medicine), and if I lived with other people (which I would prefer to do) then of course we’d have a fridge. In fact I often have use of a shared fridge at work in my various temp jobs (note that I said “own” not “use”), but I tend not to use it very much – just the occasional lettuce.

Aside from the question of embodied energy, you might think that the energy difference between two separate people each with a single-size fridge, and two cohabiting people with a double-size fridge would be non-existent or trivial. Not quite: larger fridges are more efficient than smaller ones because of the ratio of surface area to volume. When you get to the difference between a single commercial cold store and the equivalent chilled volume in domestic fridges the difference really starts to count.


3. Why not just get a state-of-the-art efficient fridge?

Actually, fridges are one of the few examples where replacing an old-but-working machine with a new-but-more-efficient one is a good idea in eco-terms – with many other machines the efficiency you gain is outweighed by the amount of embodied energy you chuck away with the scrapped gadget. But even asking the question is to be sucked into a certain type of thinking which assumes that ownership of machines is good in itself and that the answer to any problems they cause is always a better machine.

4. Isn’t it dangerous to keep food without a fridge?

Fridge ownership only became universal (in the UK at least) in the sixties. Before that many houses had some sort of room/cupboard built on a north facing wall – the ‘larder’ – which was therefore cooler than the rest of the house. I remember the larder in my grandfathers house in Preston, and can just about remember him showing off his first fridge, which was of course kept in that larder. That’s what you are supposed to do with fridges, for optimum efficiency, keep them somewhere cool, don’t run them empty, allow some space at the back so the heat can dissipate and clean the dust off the pipes now and again. But of course many people aren’t what you might call technology-literate – and it doesn’t seem to matter does it?

Anyway I am able to get along safely without a personal fridge by a combination of choice of food, and keeping it in the cooler downstairs part of my flat (and before you say it, no, I don’t eat out a great deal). I could finesse this by cobbling some sort of homemade evaporative cooling device, but I haven’t yet felt a pressing need to do so. The lack of a fridge even has some beneficial personal consequences which I will discuss in a future post about food.


Oh and I can’t resist linking to Tim Hunkin’s charming 1988 TV programme, the secret life of the refrigerator.

Thoughts on communication #1

[This is a very slightly tweaked version of a comment I left on the COIN blog a few weeks ago. The post itself was about the euro ‘remain’ campaign which the author described as:]

an object case in bad communications

It sure was. An interesting question which isn’t really asked though, is why on earth such bad mistakes are made – mistakes which, to anyone interested in communication issues, are pretty obvious. A possible answer which occurs to me is as follows.

In order to even start thinking about how other people might view matters requires a certain humility because there is some sense in which you have to start imagining what it’s like to not be me. Attempting to put oneself in someone else headspace first requires that one steps outside onself by temporarily suspending ones own assumptions, beliefs and ways of thinking. This is scary to do because, if done properly, (1) one has to accept the possibility that one might change one’s mind and (2) it also involves, in imagination, suspension of ones elite status.

I would also argue that even if one tries to avoid this worrisome ‘stepping outside oneself’ by relying entirely on research (and thereby fancying oneself entirely ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’) then one will not understand how to apply the research, or even understand what it is suggesting.

[counter-argument: sociopaths are supposedly excellent at manipulating people’s behaviour, but they, by definition, don’t go in for this method-acting-y thinking-yourself-into-someone-elses-head business. Still, most of us aren’t sociopaths and I think there might be something in my comment]


Here’s a disclaimer which always annoys me: “I’m not a luddite but …”

This first came to my attention on one of the Open University’s internal forums. Typically, the phrase precedes a complaint about some aspect of computers: “I’m no luddite but I really dislike windows 10” or something. Funnily enough, just after I wrote the above words, I moseyed over to a quite different forum, (the internal Green Party discussion forum) only to find the latest reply starts with the words:

That is Luddite thinking,

It’s a cliché that grates with me because “luddite” is just a “boo” word. The only thing it contributes to the argument is a shot of emotion: “I really dislike this”. It is able to deliver this shot of emotion because it is generally accepted to be a Rude Word, yet it is pretty well meaningless as used in any context other than history. The Luddites were a particular historic group responding in to specific historic circumstances. (Perhaps even, you or I might have done the same in the their shoes? Or would you have willingly surrendered your livelihood?) In that trivial sense, no living person is a luddite.

If you insist that it is not meaningless at all, then the extended meaning of the term seems to be something like “hates all new technology and is therefore bad at thinking”. I do not believe there is anyone who “hates all new technology” – everybody welcomes some technological developments. So nobody is a luddite.

Equally, everyone dislikes technological developments which impact negatively on themselves (and, in realising what will truly impact on them, they might in fact be good at thinking). In that sense everyone is a luddite. By using the word as an accusation what you really mean is “you don’t like this particular innovation that I do like”. If you use the disclaimer that you are not a luddite, what you mean is “I don’t deserve to be called that horrible rude word”.

It’s quite interesting to ask what would be so bad about disliking new technology anyway – the answer is more subtle than you might think so that’s going to have to be another post. The counterpart “hooray” word to “luddite”, is of course “progress”. And that kettle of worms, or can of fish, will also have to wait to be opened.


See also: my comments from 2013 on the similar term “anti-car”.

The four meanings of the word “science”

Here’s something worth quoting. It’s from Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual impostures, (1998) (the numbers in square brackets are mine):

It is crucial to distinguish at least four different senses of the word ‘science’: [1] an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world; [2] a collection of accepted theoretical and experimental ideas; [3] a social community with particular mores, institutions and links to the larger society; and, finally [4] applied science and technology (with which science is often confused). All too frequently, valid criticisms of ‘science’, understood in one of these senses, are taken to be arguments against science in a different sense.

Thus it is undeniable that science [3], a social institution, is linked to political, economic and military power, and that the social role played by scientists is often pernicious. It is also true that technology [4] has mixed results – sometimes disastrous ones – and that it rarely yields the miracle solutions that its most fervent advocates regularly promise. Finally, science considered as a body of knowledge [2], is always fallible, and scientists’ errors are sometimes due to all sorts of social, political, philosophical or religious prejudices.

Something of which I think we can all approve is meaning [1], “an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world”, but what of the rest?

Intellectual impostures was a vigorous takedown some of of the writings of various cultural theorists roughly grouped as “postmodernists” who decorated their not-always-entirely-penetrable writing with impressive but meaningless references to difficult scientific concepts that were way outside their area of academic expertise. The book came after the “Sokal hoax” where Alan Sokal (a physicist) submitted a paper full of sciencey gibberish to a postmodern journal which then published it. The journal itself was not, it seems, peer reviewed, so fair do’s, sort of – but really you’d think the editor would have noticed something was amiss – that is, if the sciency gibberish in other writers actually meant something.

Anyway, there was a big fuss about Sokal’s paper. Egg on faces combined with insistence that faces did not need any cleaning at all (oh yeah, “it’s a metaphor”. The point of a metaphor is to use something that is already understood by one’s audience in order to illuminate something which they do not yet understand). But stop right there. It’s all well in the past now; cultural theorists don’t write like that any more – and most of them never wrote like that in the first place. The affair still gets cited in internet commentary of course, where intellectual impostures is widely misrepresented as a cudgel for beating all social scientists, ignoring the fact that S & B are quite clear, in the section I’ve quoted, that some of the things that come under senses [2], [3], and [4] of “science” do deserve analysis and criticism by non-scientists.

Why am I quoting this in a blog that is so far contains mostly wittering about the environment? Because of the rhetorical sliding between the four meanings, whereby meaning [1] is used to justify the imposition of damaging and inequitable technology or the bullying exercise of power, still goes on in environmental debate. Meaning [1] is what gives science its status – despite the fallibilities of individual scientists, the endeavour itself is a noble one. So the label “science”, correctly applied, is, rightly, prestigious. More to the point, the label “anti-science” stings nastily and, if it can be made to stick, carries persuasive weight.

(I have some previous on this. I once wrote a short review of a rather shoddy book called the march of unreason which paints “environmentalists” (what, all of them?) as a bunch of idiots and I’ve also taken resurgence magazine to task for ignoring meaning [1] by stating that the purpose of “science” is to control the world).

What a laugh

No, no – this really is not a politics blog. But I just can’t help myself from making a quick comment about Boorish Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary.

Goodness, what a clever move. Most obviously, it makes a clear public statement of “no hard feelings” (and of course, in addition to being strategic, this could well be a genuine sentiment). More importantly, it has effectively put him on a leash.

Until very recently there was a real possibility that this genial blond buffoon could have ended up as prime minister – less venal than Berlusconi but equally embarrassing to his country. However, the serious objection to BJ as PM, is not his personality but his lack of relevant experience. As far as I can tell (which is not very far), the jobs of elected mayor and prime minister are very different; mayors are quasi-presidential, prime ministers are definitely not (even if the job is drifting in that direction). Therefore, adequacy as London mayor says little about potential competence as PM.

We must assume that BJs burning ambition has not vanished and he hopes to have another crack at the top job in the not-too-distant. He may be a bozo but he’s also rather intelligent and will realise that if he makes a fist of this job – which will involve the painful experience of taking it seriously for two seconds – then his chances of the main job are much enhanced. He will no doubt realise that he managed to get away with handwaving and making-things-up and being entertaining as a journalist, as an MP and as a Mayor but he cannot get away with it as foreign secretary – and the moment he does something truly dumb he’ll be promptly shuffled off. Yet he could not possibly have turned down the job without finally scuppering himself.

Showbiz for ugly people? Oh I’ll definitely be following this sitcom.