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Why we fell for clean eating

The long read: The oh-so-Instagrammable food movement has been thoroughly debunked but it shows no signs of going away. The real question is why we were so desperate to believe it

In the spring of 2014, Jordan Younger noticed that her hair was falling out in clumps. Not cool was her reaction. At the time, Younger, 23, believed herself to be eating the healthiest of all possible diets. She was a gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan. As The Blonde Vegan, Younger was a wellness blogger in New York City, one of thousands on Instagram (where she had 70,000 followers) rallying under the hashtag #eatclean. Although she had no qualifications as a nutritionist, Younger had sold more than 40,000 copies of her own $25, five-day cleanse programme a formula for an all-raw, plant-based diet majoring on green juice.

But the clean diet that Younger was selling as the route to health was making its creator sick. Far from being super-healthy, she was suffering from a serious eating disorder: orthorexia, an obsession with consuming only foods that are pure and perfect. Youngers raw vegan diet had caused her periods to stop and given her skin an orange tinge from all the sweet potato and carrots she consumed (the only carbohydrates she permitted herself). Eventually, she sought psychological help, and began to slowly widen the repertoire of foods she would allow herself to eat, starting with fish. She recognised that the problem was not her veganism, per se, but the particularly rigid and restrictive diet regime she had imposed on herself.

As Younger slowly recovered from her eating disorder, she faced a new dilemma. What would people think, she agonised, if they knew the Blonde Vegan was eating fish? She levelled with her followers in a blogpost entitled Why Im Transitioning Away from Veganism. Within hours of announcing her new diet, Younger was receiving irate messages from vegans demanding money back from the cleanse programmes and T-shirts they had bought from her site (featuring slogans such as OH KALE YES).

She lost followers by the thousands and received a daily raft of angry messages, including death threats. Some responded to her confession that she was suffering from an eating disorder by accusing her of being a fat piece of lard who didnt have the discipline to be truly clean.

For as long as people have eaten food, there have been diets and quack cures. But previously, these existed, like conspiracy theories, on the fringes of food culture. Clean eating was different, because it established itself as a challenge to mainstream ways of eating, and its wild popularity over the past five years has enabled it to move far beyond the fringes. Powered by social media, it has been more absolutist in its claims and more popular in its reach than any previous school of modern nutrition advice.

At its simplest, clean eating is about ingesting nothing but whole or unprocessed foods (whatever is meant by these deeply ambiguous terms). Some versions of clean eating have been vegan, while others espouse various meats (preferably wild) and something mysteriously called bone broth (stock, to you and me). At first, clean eating sounded modest and even homespun: rather than counting calories, you would eat as many nutritious home-cooked substances as possible.

But it quickly became clear that clean eating was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure. Seemingly out of nowhere, a whole universe of coconut oil, dubious promises and spiralised courgettes has emerged. Back in the distant mists of 2009, James Duigan, owner of The Bodyism gym in London and sometime personal trainer to the model Elle MacPherson, published his first Clean and Lean book. As an early adopter of #eatclean, Duigan notes that he battled with his publisher to include ingredients like kale and quinoa, because no one had ever heard of them. Now quinoa is in every supermarket and kale has become as normal as lettuce. I long for the days when clean eating meant not getting too much down your front, the novelist Susie Boyt joked recently.

Jordan Younger, AKA The Balanced Blonde, formerly The Blonde Vegan. Photograph: Whitford/BFA/Rex/Shutterstock

Almost as soon as it became ubiquitous, clean eating sparked a backlash. By 2015, Nigella Lawson was speaking for many when she expressed disgust at clean eating as a judgmental form of body fascism. Food is not dirty, Lawson wrote. Clean eating has been attacked by critics such as the baker and cookbook author Ruby Tandoh (who wrote a much-shared article on the subject in Vice magazine in May 2016) for being an incitement to eating disorders.

Others have pointed out that, as a method of healthy eating, its founded on bad science. In June, the American Heart Association suggested that the coconut oil beloved as a panacea by clean eaters actually had no known offsetting favourable effects, and that consuming it could result in higher LDL cholesterol. A few weeks later, Anthony Warner a food consultant with a background in science who blogs as The Angry Chef published a book-length assault on the science of clean eating, calling it a world of quinoa bowls and nutribollocks fuelled by the modern information age.

When Dr Giles Yeo, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, presented an episode of the BBCs Horizon this year that examined the scientific evidence for different schools of clean eating, he found everything from innocuous recipes to serious malpractice.

He reported on the alkaline diet of Dr Robert O Young, who peddled the idea that disease is caused by eating acidic foods. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer in her 20s, Naima Houder-Mohammed, an officer in the British army, paid Young more than $77,000 for treatment (including meals of avocado, which Young calls Gods butter) at his pH miracle ranch in the US in 2012. She died later that year. Separately, Young was jailed in June this year after being convicted of charges including practising medicine without a licence. While he may represent an extreme case, it is clear that many wellness gurus, as Yeos programme concluded, tell a troubling narrative founded on falsehoods.

As the negative press for clean eating has intensified over the past year, many of the early goddesses of #eatclean have tried to rebrand declaring they no longer use the word clean to describe the recipes that have sold them millions of books. Ella Mills AKA Deliciously Ella, the food writer and entrepreneur whose coconut-and-oat energy balls sell for 1.79 apiece in British supermarkets said on Yeos Horizon programme that she felt that the word clean as applied to eating originally meant nothing but natural, real, unprocessed food. Now, it means diet, it means fad, she complained.

But however much the concept of clean eating has been logically refuted and publicly reviled, the thing itself shows few signs of dying. Step into the cookbook section of any book shop and you will see how many recipe writers continue to promise us inner purity and outer beauty. Even if you have never knowingly tried to eat clean, its impossible to avoid the trend altogether, because it changed the foods available to all of us, and the way they are spoken of.

Avocados now outsell oranges in the UK. Susi Richards, head of product development at Sainsburys supermarkets, told me earlier this year that she had been taken aback by the pace at which demand for products fitting with the clean eating lifestyle have grown in the UK. Families who would once have eaten potato waffles are now experimenting with lower carb butternut squaffles (slices of butternut squash cut to resemble a waffle). Nutribullets a brand of compact blenders designed for making supposedly radiance-bestowing juices and smoothies are now mentioned in some circles as casually as wooden spoons.

Why has clean eating proved so difficult to kill off? Hadley Freeman, in this paper, identified clean eating as part of a post-truth culture, whose adherents are impervious, or even hostile, to facts and experts. But to understand how clean eating took hold with such tenacity, its necessary first to consider just what a terrifying thing food has become for millions of people in the modern world. The interesting question is not whether clean eating is nonsense, but why so many intelligent people decided to put their faith in it.

We are not the only generation to have looked in disgust at an unhealthy food environment and wished that we could replace it with nutrients that were perfectly safe to eat. In the 1850s, a British chemist called Arthur Hill Hassall became convinced that the whole food supply of London was riddled with toxins and fakery. Whats more, he was right. Hassall had done a series of investigations for the medical journal the Lancet, and found that much of what was for sale as food and drink was not what it seemed: coffee made from burnt sugar and chicory; pickles dyed green with poisonous copper colourings.

Years of exposing the toxic deceptions all around him seems to have driven Hassall to a state of paranoia. He started to see poison everywhere, and decided that the answer was to create a set of totally uncontaminated food products. In 1881, he set up his own firm, The Pure Food Company, which would only use ingredients of unimpeachable quality. Hassall took water that was softened and purified and combined it with the finest Smithfield beef to make the purest beef jelly and disgusting-sounding fibrinous meat lozenges the energy balls of Victorian England. The Pure Food Company of 1881 sounds just like a hundred wellness food businesses today except for the fact that it collapsed within a year due to lack of sales.

We are once again living in an environment where ordinary food, which should be something reliable and sustaining, has come to feel noxious. Unlike the Victorians, we do not fear that our coffee is fake so much as that our entire pattern of eating may be bad for us, in ways that we cant fully identify. One of the things that makes the new wave of wellness cookbooks so appealing is that they assure the reader that they offer a new way of eating that comes without any fear or guilt.

The founding principle of these modern wellness regimes is that our current way of eating is slowly poisoning us. Much of the food on offer to us today is nutritionally substandard, write the Hemsley sisters, best-selling champions of nutrient-dense food. Its hard to disagree with the proposition that modern diets are generally substandard, even if you dont share the Hemsleys solution of going grain-free. All of these diets have a kernel of truth that is spun out into some bigger fantasy, Giles Yeo says hence their huge appeal.

Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley. Photograph: Nick Hopper

Clean eating whether it is called that or not is perhaps best seen as a dysfunctional response to a still more dysfunctional food supply: a dream of purity in a toxic world. To walk into a modern western supermarket is to be assailed by aisle upon aisle of salty, oily snacks and sugary cereals, of bread that has been neither proved nor fermented, of cheap, sweetened drinks and meat from animals kept in inhumane conditions.

In the postwar decades, most countries in the world underwent what the professor of nutrition Barry Popkin calls a nutrition transition to a westernised diet high in sugar, meat, fat, salt, refined oils and ultra-processed concoctions, and low in vegetables. Affluence and multi-national food companies replaced the hunger of earlier generations with an unwholesome banquet of sweet drinks and convenience foods that teach us from a young age to crave more of the same. Wherever this pattern of eating travelled, it brought with it dramatic rises in ill health, from allergies to cancer.

In prosperous countries, large numbers of people whether they wanted to lose weight or not became understandably scared of the modern food supply and what it was doing to our bodies: type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, not to mention a host of other complaints that are influenced by diet, ranging from Alzheimers to gout. When mainstream diets start to sicken people, it is unsurprising that many of us should seek other ways of eating to keep ourselves safe from harm. Our collective anxiety around diet was exacerbated by a general impression that mainstream scientific advice on diet inflated by newspaper headlines could not be trusted. First these so-called experts tell us to avoid fat, then sugar, and all the while people get less and less healthy. What will these experts say next, and why should we believe them?

Into this atmosphere of anxiety and confusion stepped a series of gurus offering messages of wonderful simplicity and reassurance: eat this way and I will make you fresh and healthy again. It is very hard to pinpoint the exact moment when clean eating started, because it is not so much as a single diet as a portmanteau term that has borrowed ideas from numerous pre-existing diets: a bit of Paleo here, some Atkins there, with a few remnants of 1960s macrobiotics thrown in for good measure.

But some time in the early 2000s, two distinct but interrelated versions of clean eating became popular in the US one based on the creed of real food, and the other on the idea of detox. Once the concept of cleanliness had entered the realm of eating, it was only a matter of time before the basic idea spread contagiously across Instagram, where fans of #eatclean could share their artfully photographed green juices and rainbow salad bowls.

The first and more moderate version of clean food started in 2007, when Tosca Reno, a Canadian fitness model, published a book called The Eat-Clean Diet. In it, Reno described how she lost 34kg (75lb) and transformed her health by avoiding all over-refined and processed foods, particularly white flour and sugar. A typical Reno eat-clean meal might be stir-fried chicken and vegetables over brown rice; or almond-date biscotti with a cup of tea. In many ways The Eat-Clean Diet was like any number of diet books that had come before, advising plenty of vegetables and modestly portioned, home-cooked meals. The difference, which Anthony Warner calls a piece of genius on Renos part, was that she did not call it a diet at all, but a holistic way of living.

Meanwhile, a second version of clean eating was spearheaded by a former cardiologist from Uruguay called Alejandro Junger, the author of Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Bodys Natural Ability to Heal Itself, which was published in 2009 after Jungers clean detox system had been praised by Gwyneth Paltrow on her Goop website. Jungers system was far stricter than Renos, requiring, for a few weeks, a radical elimination diet based on liquid meals and a total exclusion of caffeine, alcohol, dairy and eggs, sugar, all vegetables in the nightshade family (tomatoes, aubergines and so on), red meat (which, according to Junger, creates an acidic inner environment), among other foods. During this phase, Junger advised a largely liquid diet either composed of home-made juices and soups, or of his own special powdered shakes. After the detox period, Junger advised very cautiously reintroducing toxic triggers such as wheat (a classic trigger of allergic responses) and dairy (an acid-forming food).

Photograph: Alexandra Iakovleva/Getty

To read Jungers book is to feel that everything edible in our world is potentially toxic. Yet, as with Arthur Hassall, many of Jungers fears may be justified. Junger writes as a doctor with first-hand knowledge of diet-related epidemics of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease. The book is full of case studies of individuals who follow Jungers detox and emerge lighter, leaner and happier. Who is the candidate for using this program? Junger asks, replying: Everyone who lives a modern life, eats a modern diet and inhabits the modern world.

To my surprise, I found myself compelled by the messianic tone of Jungers Clean though not quite compelled enough to pay $475 for his 21-day programme (which, in any case, doesnt ship outside of North America), or to give up my daily breakfast of inflammatory coffee, gut-irritating sourdough toast and acid-forming butter, on which I feel surprisingly well. When I told Giles Yeo how seductive I found Jungers words, almost despite myself, he said: This is their magic! They are all charismatic human beings. I do think the clean-eating gurus believe in it themselves. They drink the Koolaid.

Over the past 50 years, mainstream healthcare in the west has been inexplicably blind to the role that diet plays in preventing and alleviating ill health. When it started, #eatclean spoke to growing numbers of people who felt that their existing way of eating was causing them problems, from weight gain to headaches to stress, and that conventional medicine could not help. In the absence of nutrition guidance from doctors, it was a natural step for individuals to start experimenting with cutting out this food or that.

From 2009 to 2014, the number of Americans who actively avoided gluten, despite not suffering from coeliac disease, more than tripled. It also became fashionable to drink a whole pantheon of non-dairy milks, ranging from oat milk to almond milk. I have lactose-intolerant and vegan friends who say that #eatclean has made it far easier for them to buy ingredients that they once had to go to specialist health-food stores to find. What isnt so easy now is to find reliable information on special diets in the sea of half-truths and bunkum.

Someone who observed how quickly and radically #eatclean changed the market for health-food books is Anne Dolamore, a publisher at the independent food publishers Grub Street, based in London. Dolamore has been publishing health-related food books since 1995, a time when free-from cooking was a tiny subculture. In the days before Google, Dolamore who has long believed that food is medicine felt that books on special diets by authors with proper credentials could serve a useful purpose. In 1995, Grub Street published The Everyday Diabetic Cookbook, which has since sold over 100,000 copies in the UK. Other successful books followed, including The Everyday Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, published in 1998.

In 2012, the market for wellness cookbooks in the UK suddenly changed, starting with the surprise success of Honestly Healthy by Natasha Corrett and Vicki Edgson, which sold around 80,000 copies. Louise Haines, a publisher at 4th Estate, recalls that the previous big trend in British food publishing had been baking, but the baking boom died overnight, virtually, and a number of sugar-free books came through.

At Grub Street, Anne Dolamore watched aghast as bestselling cookbooks piled up from a never-ending stream of blonde, willowy authorities, many of whom seemed to be devising diets based on little but their own limited experience. If Junger and Reno laid the groundwork for eat clean to become a vast global trend, it was social media and the internet that did the rest. Almost all of the authors of the British clean eating bestsellers started off as bloggers or Instagrammers, many of them beautiful women in their early 20s who were genuinely convinced that the diets they had invented had cured them of various chronic ailments.

Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. Food has the power to make or break you, wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy looked and felt as if it had a football in it from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or factory-made food. By giving up processed and convenience foods (margarine, yuck!) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to looking younger and feeling healthier.

Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for plant-based, natural foods. Mills who used to be a model made following a free-from diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.

Amelia Freer. Photograph: S Meddle/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. If its got a barcode or a promise, dont buy it, wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.

After years on the margins, health-based cooking was finally getting a mass audience. In 2016, 18 out the 20 top sellers in Amazon UKs food and drink book category had a focus on healthy eating and dieting. The irony, however, was that the kind of well-researched books Dolamore and others once published no longer tended to sell so well, because health publishing was now dominated by social media celebrities. Bookshops were heaving with so many of these clean books that even the authors themselves started to feel that there were too many of them. Alice Liveing, a 23-year-old personal trainer who writes as Clean Eating Alice, argued in her 2016 book Eat Well Every Day that she was championing what I feel is a much-needed breath of fresh air in what I think is an incredibly saturated market. To my untrained eye, browsing through her book, Alices fresh approach to diet looked very similar to countless others: date and almond energy balls, kale chips, beetroot and feta burgers.

Then again, shouldnt we give clean eating due credit for achieving the miracle of turning beetroot and kale into objects of desire? Data from analysts Kantar Worldpanel show that UK sales of fresh beetroot have risen dramatically from 42.8m in 2013 to 50.5m in 2015. Some would argue that, in developed nations where most people eat shockingly poor diets, low in greens and high in sugar, this new union of health and food has done a modicum of good. Giles Yeo who spent some time cooking a spicy sweet-potato dish with Ella Mills for his BBC programme agrees that many of the clean eating recipes he tried are actually a tasty and cool way to cook vegetables. But why, Yeo asks, do these authors not simply say I am publishing a very good vegetarian cookbook and stop there, instead of making larger claims about the power of vegetables to beautify or prevent disease? The poison comes from the fact that they are wrapping the whole thing up in pseudoscience, Yeo says. If you base something on falsehoods, it empowers people to take extreme actions, and this is where the harm begins.

You cant found a new faith system with the words I am publishing a very good vegetarian cookbook. For this, you need something stronger. You need the assurance of make-believe, whispered sweetly. Grind this cauliflower into tiny pieces and you can make a special kind of no-carb rice! Avoid all sugar and your skin will shimmer! Among other things, clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that my own feelings about clean eating changed from ambivalence to outright dislike. I was on stage at the Cheltenham literary festival with dietician Renee McGregor (who works both with Olympic athletes and eating disorder sufferers) when a crowd of around 300 clean-eating fans started jeering and shouting at us. We were supposedly taking part in a clean-eating debate with nutritionist Madeleine Shaw, author of Get the Glow and Ready Steady Glow.

Before that week, I had never read any of Shaws work. As I flicked through Ready Steady Glow, I was fairly endeared by the upbeat tone (stop depriving yourself and start living) and bright photos of a beaming Shaw. I often surprise myself by finding new things to spiralise she writes, introducing a sweet potato noodle salad. Cauliflower pizza, in her view, is quite simply: the best invention ever.

But underneath the brightness there were notes of restriction that I found both worrying and confused. As ever, all my recipes are sugar-and-wheat free, Shaw announces, only to give a recipe for gluten-free brownies that contains 200g of coconut sugar, a substance that costs a lot more than your average white granulated sugar, but is metabolised by the body in the same way. I was still more alarmed by step four in Shaws nine-point food philosophy, which says that all bread and pasta should be avoided: they are beige foods, which are full of chemicals, preservatives and genetically modified wheat, and not whole foods. Shaws book makes no distinction between a loaf of, say, bleached sliced white, and a homemade wholemeal sourdough.

When we met on stage in Cheltenham, I asked Shaw why she told people to cut out all bread, and was startled when she denied she had said any such thing (rye bread was her favourite, she added). McGregor asked Shaw what she meant when she wrote that people should try to eat only clean proteins; meat that was not deep-fried was her rather baffling reply. McGregors main concern about clean eating, she added, was that as a professional treating young people with eating disorders, she had seen first-hand how the rules and restrictions of clean eating often segued into debilitating anorexia or orthorexia.

Madeleine Shaw promoting her book Get the Glow. Photograph: Joe Pepler/REX/Shutterstock

But I only see the positive, said Shaw, now wiping away tears. It was at this point that the audience, who were already restless whenever McGregor or I spoke, descended into outright hostility, shouting and hissing for us to get off stage. In a book shop after the event, as fans came up to Shaw to thank her for giving them the glow, I too burst into tears when one person jabbed her fingers at me and said I should be ashamed, as an older women (I am 43), to have criticised a younger one. On Twitter that night, some Shaw fans made derogatory comments about how McGregor and I looked, under the hashtag #youarewhatyoueat. The implication was that, if we were less photogenic than Shaw, we clearly had nothing of any value to say about food (never mind the fact that McGregor has degrees in biochemistry and nutrition).

Thinking about the event on the train home, I realised that the crowd were angry with us not because they disagreed with the details (its pretty clear that you cant have sugar in sugar-free recipes), but because they disliked the fact that we were arguing at all. To insist on the facts made us come across as cruelly negative. We had punctured the happy belief-bubble of glowiness that they had come to imbibe from Shaw. Its striking that in many of the wellness cookbooks, mainstream scientific evidence on diet is seen as more or less irrelevant, not least because the gurus see the complacency of science as part of what made our diets so bad in the first place.

Amelia Freer, in Eat. Nourish. Glow, admits that we cant prove that dairy is the cause of ailments ranging from IBS to joint pain, but concludes that its surely worth cutting dairy out anyway, just as a precaution. In another context, Freer writes that Im told it takes 17 years for scientific knowledge to filter down to become general knowledge, while advising that gluten should be avoided. Once we enter the territory where all authority and expertise are automatically suspect, you can start to claim almost anything and many #eatclean authorities do.

That night in Cheltenham, I saw that clean eating or whatever name it now goes under had elements of a post-truth cult. As with any cult, it could be something dark and divisive if you got on the wrong side of it. After Giles Yeos BBC programme was aired, he told me he was startled to find himself subjected to relentless online trolling. They said I was funded by big pharma, and therefore obviously wouldnt see the benefits of a healthy diet over medicine. These were outright lies. (Yeo is employed by the University of Cambridge, and funded by the Medical Research Council.)

Its increasingly clear that clean eating, for all its good intentions, can cause real harm, both to truth and to human beings. Over the past 18 months, McGregor says, every single client with an eating disorder who walks into my clinic doors is either following or wants to follow a clean way of eating.

In her new book, Orthorexia, McGregor observes that while eating disorders long predate the #eatclean trend, food rules (such as eating no dairy or avoiding all grains) easily become a guise for restricting food intake. Moreover, they are not even good rules, based as they are on unsubstantiated, unscientific claims. Take almond milk, which is widely touted as a superior alternative to cows milk. McGregor sees it as little better than expensive water, containing just 0.1g protein per 100ml, compared with 3.2g per 100ml in cows milk. But she often finds it very difficult to convince her clients that restricting themselves to these clean foods is in the long run worse for their health than what she calls unrestrained eating balanced and varied meals, but no panic about the odd ice cream or chocolate bar.

Clearly, not everyone who bought a clean-eating book has developed an eating disorder. But a movement whose premise is that normal food is unhealthy has now muddied the waters of healthy eating for everyone else, by planting the idea that a good diet is one founded on absolutes.

The true calamity of clean eating is not that it is entirely false. It is that it contains a kernel of truth, as Giles Yeo puts it. When you strip down all the pseudo babble, they are absolutely right to say that we should eat more vegetables, less refined sugar and less meat, Yeo said, sipping a black coffee in his office at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge, where he spends his days researching the causes of obesity. Yeo agrees with the clean eaters that our environment of cheap, plentiful, sugary, fatty food is a recipe for widespread obesity and ill health. The problem is its near impossible to pick out the sensible bits of clean eating and ignore the rest. #Eatclean made healthy eating seem like something expensive, exclusive and difficult to achieve, as Anthony Warner writes. Whether the term clean is used or not, there is a new puritanism about food that has taken root very widely.

A few weeks ago, I overheard a fit, middle-aged man at the gym berating a friend for not eating a better diet a conversation that would once have been unimaginable among men. The first man was telling the second that the skinny burgers he preferred were nothing but shitty mince and marketing and arguing that he could get almost everything he needed from a diet of vegetables, cooked with no oil. Fat is fat, at the end of the day, he concluded, before bemoaning the idiots who tried to eat something wholesome like a salad, then ruined it by adding salt. If you have one bad diet day a week, you undo all your good work.

The real question is how to fight this kind of diet absolutism without bouncing back to a mindless celebration of the modern food environment that is demonstrably making so many people sick. In 2016, more than 600 children in the UK were registered as living with type 2 diabetes; before 2002, there were no reported cases of children suffering from the condition, whose causes are diet-related.

Our food system is in desperate need of reform. Theres a danger that, in fighting the nonsense of clean eating, we end up looking like apologists for a commercial food supply that is failing in its basic task of nourishing us. Former orthorexia sufferer Edward L Yuen has argued in his 2014 book, Beating Orthorexia that the old advice of everything in moderation no longer works in a food environment where eating in the middle ground may still leave you with chronic diseases. When portions are supersized and Snickers bars are sold by the metre (something I saw in my local Tesco recently), eating normally is not necessarily a balanced option. The answer isnt yet another perfect diet, but a shift in our idea of what constitutes normal food.

Sales of courgettes in the UK soared 20% from 2014 to 2015, fuelled by the rise of the spiraliser. But overall consumption of vegetables, both in the UK and worldwide, is still vanishingly small (with 74% of the adult UK population not managing to eat five a day). That is much lower than it was in the 1950s, when freshly cooked daily meals were still something that most people took for granted.

Among the affluent classes who already ate a healthier-than-average diet, the Instagram goddesses created a new model of dietary perfection to aim for. For the rest of the population, however, it simply placed the ideal of healthy food ever further out of reach. Behind the shiny covers of the clean-eating books, there is a harsh form of economic exclusion that says that someone who cant afford wheatgrass or spirulina can never be truly well.

As the conversation I overheard in the gym illustrates, this way of thinking is especially dangerous because it obscures the message that, in fact, small changes in diet can have a large beneficial impact. If you think you cant be healthy unless you eat nothing but vegetables, you might miss the fact that (as a recent overview of the evidence by epidemiologists showed) there are substantial benefits from raising your fruit-and-veg intake from zero portions a day to just two.

Among its many other offences, clean eating was a series of claims about food that were all or nothing which only serves to underline the fact that most people, as usual, are stuck with nothing.

Main photograph: Alamy

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/11/why-we-fell-for-clean-eating

Forget the environment: we need new words to convey lifes wonders | George Monbiot

We require much better methods of speaking about nature and our relationships with it, composes Guardian writer George Monbiot

I f Moses had assured the Israelites a land streaming with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? This indicates milk and honey, I question it would have influenced them.

So why do we utilize such language to explain the natural marvels of the world? There are examples all over, however I will highlight the issue with a couple of from the UK. On land, locations where nature is safeguarded are called websites of unique clinical interest . At sea, they are identified no-take zones or recommendation locations . Had you set out to separate individuals from the living world, you might hardly have actually done much better. When we utilize that word about an individual, #peeee

Even the term reserve is cold and pushing away think of exactly what we imply. The environment is simply as bad: an empty word that produces no images in the mind. Wild plants and animals are referred to as resources or stocks, as if they come from us and their function is to serve us: a concept disastrously extended by the term environment services .

Our attacks on life and charm are likewise sanitised and camouflaged by the words we utilize. When a types is eliminated by individuals, we utilize the term termination. It communicates no sense of our function in the extermination, and blends this elimination with the natural turnover of types. Its like calling murder expiration. Environment modification likewise puzzles natural variation with the devastating interruption we trigger: a confusion intentionally made use of by those who reject our function. (Even this neutral term has actually now been prohibited from usage in the United States Department of Agriculture .) I still see ecologists describing enhanced pasture, suggesting land from which all life has actually been eliminated aside from a number of plant types favoured for grazing or silage. We require a brand-new vocabulary.

Words have an exceptional power to form our understandings . The organisation Common Cause goes over a research study task where individuals were asked to play a video game. One group was informed it was called the Wall Street Game, while another was asked to play the Community Game. It was the very same video game. When it was called the Wall Street Game, the individuals were regularly more self-centered and more most likely to betray the other gamers. There were comparable distinctions in between individuals carrying out a customer response research study and a resident response research study: the concerns were the exact same, however when individuals saw themselves as customers, they were most likely to associate materialistic worths with favorable feelings. When we hear them, #peeee

Words encode worths that are unconsciously set off. When particular expressions are duplicated, they can shape and enhance a worldview , making it difficult for us to see a concern in a different way. Marketers and spin medical professionals comprehend this too well: they understand that they can activate specific actions by utilizing particular language. Numerous of those who look for to safeguard the living world appear invulnerable to this intelligence.

The devastating failure by ecologists to pay attention to exactly what social psychologists and cognitive linguists have actually been informing them has actually caused the worst framing of all: natural capital . This term notifies us that nature is secondary to the human economy, and loses its worth when it can not be determined by loan. It leads nearly inexorably to the claim made by the federal government firm Natural England : The crucial function of an effectively operating natural surroundings is providing financial success.

<img class="gu-image"itemprop="contentUrl"alt="Coral"
off jarvis island”src=”https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/b841bf8bf9671a0787e05a1ef5ef554d0382bbe3/0_14_1631_979/master/1631.jpg?w=300&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=f754ef7a16b659d24af566f7a1e751de”/&gt; Coral off Jarvis Island, in the main Pacific, which has actually been provided wildlife sanctuary status by the United States. Picture: Jim Maragos/AP

By framing the living world in this method, we bury the problems that loan can not determine. In England and Wales, inning accordance with a parliamentary report, the loss of soil expenses around 1bn each year . We take in the implicit idea that this loss might be redeemed by loan when we checked out such declarations. The aggregate of 1bn lost this year, 1bn lost next year and so on is not a specific number of billions. It is completion of civilisation.

On Sunday night, I visited the beavers that have actually started to repopulate the river Otter in Devon . I signed up with individuals silently processing up the bank to their lodge. The buddy I strolled with commented: Its like a trip, right? We discovered a crowd standing in overall silence under the trees when we showed up at the beaver lodge. When initially a kingfisher appeared, then a beaver, you might check out the magic and enjoy every face. Our wonder of nature, and the silence we need to observe when we view wild animals, tips, I think, at the origins of faith.

So why do those who look for to safeguard the living world and who were doubtless motivated to dedicate their lives to it through the very same sense of marvel and respect so woefully cannot record these worths in the method they call the world?

Those who call it own it. The researchers who created the term websites of unique clinical interest were doubtless unknowingly staking a claim: this location is very important due to the fact that it is of interest to us. Those who explain the small pieces of seabed where no business fishing is permitted as recommendation locations are informing us that the significance and function of such locations is as a clinical standard. Yes, they play that function. To the majority of individuals who dive there, they represent much more: incredible havens, thronged with animals that excitement and astonish.

Rather than arrogating calling rights to themselves, expert ecologists need to hire poets and cognitive linguists and amateur nature enthusiasts to assist them discover the words for exactly what they value . Here are a couple of concepts. I hope, in the remarks that follow this short article online, you can include and enhance to them.

If we called safeguarded locations of natural marvel, we would not just speak with individuals love of nature, however likewise develop a goal that communicates exactly what they should be. Lets stop utilizing the word environment, and utilize terms such as living world and natural world rather, as they enable us to form a photo of exactly what we are explaining. Lets desert the term environment modification and begin stating environment breakdown. Rather of termination, lets embrace the word promoted by the legal representative Polly Higgins: ecocide .

We are blessed with a wealth of nature and a wealth of language. Let us bring them together and utilize one to safeguard the other.

George Monbiot is a Guardian writer

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/09/forget-the-environment-new-words-lifes-wonders-language

Life after the bomb: exploring the psychogeography of Hiroshima

On the anniversary of Hiroshimas nuclear destruction, a walk through the citys memorial park reveals a complex mix of devastation and rehabilitation

Hiroshima is flourishing. It has a population surpassing 1.19 million, a burgeoning gourmet scene, towering luxury shopping centres, and a trendy night life. It is a city of vibrant green boulevards and open spaces, entangled by the braided tributaries of the ta River. However it is also a city of memorialisation. Over 75 monuments, large and small, sprout like delicate mushrooms in parks and on sidewalks, scattered across the city as if by the wind. Whilst the city grows and evolves, the memory remains of Hiroshima as first place on Earth where nuclear weapons were used in warfare, on 6 August 1945.

The number of fatalities is not known, due wartime population transience and the destruction of records in the blast. Estimates are in the region of 135,000 people, roughly equivalent to the population of Oxford. It is therefore unsurprising that many locals have Hibakusha veterans in their families. The Hibakusha community maintain a living collective memory of the bomb, sharing their atomic folktales similarly to the Kataribe storytellers, as a cautionary modern mythology against nuclear war.

It was assumed that nothing would grow within the bleak blast-zone for 75 years. Photograph: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/AFP/Getty Images

It was assumed that nothing would grow within the bleak 1.6km blast-zone for 75 years. However, surrounding prefectures donated trees to Hiroshima. Fresh stems quickly pushed through the damaged earth, plants took root, and the branches of the Hibaku-jumoku, the survivor trees, unfurled leaves of weeping willow and oleander from budded stalks. The city has been rehabilitated, and it is challenging to imagine it as a place of devastation. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is a lush focal point of this re-greening process, and a unique human ecosystem has sprung up among the gingko trees and sussurating cicadas.

The park has its own distinctive psychogeography, providing a public space for complex emotions and experiences to be explored by locals and tourists. International visitors feature prominently around the larger memorials and cenotaph. They ring the delicate origami crane bell-pull within the Childrens Peace Monument, take a few photographs of the cenotaph, stroll beside the Peace Pond, and then across the river to the A-bomb dome.

Tattered peace cranes adorn a memorial. Photograph: B. Alexis-Martin

Distance is no indication of personal connection, and victims of Hiroshima have originated from across the USA, China and South East Asia. Thousands of Koreans died in Hiroshima: the men were forcibly conscripted and the women performed the duties of comfort women. The monument and Cenotaph to Korean Victims are festooned with brightly coloured flowers and receive a constant trickle of visitors, many of whom are Korean. Swags of peace cranes garland the smaller memorials dotted about the park, and the fragrance of sandalwood and citron lingers, as incense is lit and local heads are respectfully bowed. Japanese schoolchildren come here to learn, and they sit in the shade of the trees at noon in civilised huddles, to eat lunch and chatter.

One of the parks shrines. Photograph: B. Alexis-Martin

Many visit to reflect upon the atrocity of the bombing, but this attitude is not universal. I learned this during an encounter with an American man at the Ground Zero memorial, tucked away on a side-street beyond the boundaries of the park. We smiled at each other, as he shared his reasons for visiting, declared the power of the bomb to end the war, and the American soldiers, including his grandfather, whose lives were saved by this action. He was grateful for the bomb, but I was shocked at the way he had decided to make an emotional connection with this place.

However, the local community has a deep and profound connection to the park. Volunteers in distinctive uniforms meticulously maintain the place on a daily basis. This voluntary care of space escalates, as Hiroshima Peace Day draws near. Visit the park at 6am towards the end of July, and you will discover hordes of elderly people from the Senior University, wearing sunhats and brandishing trowels. They crouch above the ground, plucking weeds from the soil with gloved fingers. Whilst they garden, trails of elegantly dressed office workers bisect the park at intervals, carrying files and parasols in delicately gloved hands. Commuting to work, this stretch of land has become another familiar part of the rhythm of their daily lives.

There are also spaces of conflict and deviance here. The Uyoku dantai are the Japanese extreme-far right. They call themselves the Society of Patriots and travel about in dark vans painted with worrying slogans. War crime denialists, they support historical revisionism, oppose socialism and want Japan to join the nuclear circus. Unfortunately, they cannot be arrested due to the protection of freedom of ideology by the Constitution of Japan. So they jeer from the sidelines of the park, and organise protests outside the A-Dome on Hiroshima Peace Day. To the consternation of many, they have been gaining popularity in recent years.

Elderly men play board games such as Shogi and Go. Photograph: B. Alexis-Martin

However, there is also a place of joy hidden within this park, on a dusty corner of dry earth behind the public toilets. Here, a group of elderly Japanese men meet every week-day morning, to crouch on battered wooden chairs and play board games. Some, but not all, are Hibakusha, but all of them look relaxed, and laugh loudly as they engage in drawn-out battles of Shogi and Go. They have created their own friendly-yet-private space within this park. As dusk sets in, they pack up their board games and fold up their little chairs and tables to go home. The cicadas grow louder, and a calmness settles over the park as twilight descends. Small clusters of local teenagers gather and relax in the evenings warmth. Faint sounds of conversation gradually dwindle to nothingness and the day draws to a close, reclaimed by the stillness of night. Our day in the park may be over, but the collective memory of the Hiroshima bombing forever remains.

With gratitude to Professor Bo Jacobs at Hiroshima Peace Institute, and with love to the extraordinary Hibakusha of Hiroshima and their families worldwide.

Becky Alexis-Martin is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, with expertise in the cultural and social effects of nuclear defence. She writes on the lives of nuclear test veteran families, and the cultural and social significance of nuclear places and spaces.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2017/aug/06/life-after-the-bomb-exploring-the-psychogeography-of-hiroshima

Watching ice melt: inside Nasas mission to the north pole

The long read: For 10 years, Nasa has been flying over the ice caps to chart their retreat. This data is an invaluable record of climate change. But does anyone care?

From the window of a Nasa aircraft flying over the Arctic, looking down on the ice sheet that covers most of Greenland, its easy to see why it is so hard to describe climate change. The scale of polar ice, so dramatic and so clear from a plane flying at 450 metres (1,500ft) high enough to appreciate the scope of the ice and low enough to sense its mass is nearly impossible to fathom when you arent sitting at that particular vantage point.

But its different when you are there, cruising over the ice for hours, with Nasas monitors all over the cabin streaming data output, documenting in real time dramatising, in a sense the depth of the ice beneath. You get it, because you can see it all there in front of you, in three dimensions.

Imagine a thousand centuries of heavy snowfall, piled up and compacted into stone-like ice atop the bedrock of Greenland, an Arctic island almost a quarter the size of the US. Imagine all of modern human history, from the Neolithic revolution 12,000 years ago when humans moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and from there, eventually, to urban societies until today. All of the snow that fell on the Arctic during that entire history is gathered up in just the top layers of the ice sheet.

Imagine the dimensions of that ice: 1.71m sq km (656,000 sq miles), three times the size of Texas. At its belly from the top layer, yesterdays snowfall, to the bottom layer, which is made of snow that fell out of the sky 115,000-130,000 years ago it reaches 3,200 metres (10,500ft) thick, nearly four times taller than the worlds highest skyscraper.

Imagine the weight of this thing: at the centre of Greenland, the ice is so heavy that it warps the land itself, pushing bedrock 359 metres (1,180ft) below sea level. Under its own immense weight, the ice comes alive, folding and rolling in solid streams, in glaciers that slowly push outward. This is a head-spinningly dynamic system that we still dont fully understand and that we really ought to learn far more about, and quickly. In theory, if this massive thing were fully drained, and melted into the sea, the water contained in it would make the worlds oceans rise by 7 metres (23ft).

When you fly over entire mountain ranges whose tips barely peek out from under the ice and these are just the visible ones its possible to imagine what would happen if even a fraction of this quantity of pent-up freshwater were unleashed. You can plainly see how this thing would flood the coasts of the world, from Brooklyn to Bangladesh.

The crew of Nasas Operation IceBridge have seen this ice from every imaginable angle. IceBridge is an aerial survey of the polar regions that has been underway for nearly a decade the most ambitious of its kind to date. It has yielded a growing dataset that helps researchers document, among other things, how much, and at what rate, ice is disappearing from the poles, contributing to global sea-level rises, and to a variety of other phenomena related to climate change.

Alternating seasonally between the north and south poles, Operation Icebridge mounts months-long campaigns in which it operates eight- to 12-hour daily flights, as often as weather permits. This past spring season, when I joined them in the Arctic, they launched 40 flights, but had 63 detailed flight plans prepared. Operation IceBridge seeks to create a continuous data record of the constantly shifting ice by bridging hence the name data retrieved from a Nasa satellite that ended its service in 2009, called ICESat, and its successor, ICESat-2, which is due to launch next year. The Nasa dataset, which offers a broad overview of the state of polar ice, is publicly available to any researcher anywhere in the world.

In April, I travelled to Kangerlussuaq, in south-west Greenland, and joined the IceBridge field crew a group of about 30 laser, radar, digital mapping, IT and GPS engineers, glaciologists, pilots and mechanics. What I saw there were specialists who have, over the course of almost 10 years on this mission, mastered the art and science of polar data hunting while, at the same time, watching as the very concept of data, of fact-based discourse, has crumbled in their culture at home.

On each flight, I witnessed a remarkable tableau. Even as Arctic glaciers were losing mass right below the speeding plane, and even as raw data gleaned directly from those glaciers was pouring in on their monitors, the Nasa engineers sat next to their fact-recording instruments, sighing and wondering aloud if Americans had lost the eyes to see what they were seeing, to see the facts. What they told me revealed something about what it means to be a US federally funded climate researcher in 2017 and what they didnt, or couldnt, tell me revealed even more.

On my first morning in Greenland, I dropped in on a weather meeting with John Sonntag, mission scientist and de facto field captain for Nasas Operation IceBridge. I stood inside the cosy weather office at Kangerlussuaq airport, surrounded by old Danish-language topographical maps of Greenland, as Sonntag explained to me that the ice sheet, because of its shape, can generate unique weather patterns (the ice isnt flat, its curved, he said, making a little mound shape with his hands).

The fate of the polar ice has occupied the last decade of his life (Im away from home so much its probably why Im not married). But at pre-flight weather meetings, polar ice is mostly of concern to him for the quirky way it might affect that days weather. The figure in Sonntags mind this morning isnt metres of sea rise, but dollars in flight time. The estimated price tag for a flight on Operation IceBridge is about $100,000; a single hour of flight time is said to cost $10-15,000. If Sonntag misreads the weather and the plane has to turn back, he loses flight time, a lot of taxpayers money, and precious data.

I would come to view Sonntag as something of a Zen sage of atmospheric conditions. He checks the weather the moment he wakes in the morning, before he eats or even uses the bathroom. He told me that it wasnt simply about knowing what the weather is. With weather, there is no is. Whats needed is the ability to grasp constant dynamic change.

What Im doing, he said, is correcting my current reading against my previous one which he had made the last possible moment the night before, just before falling asleep. Basically, Im calibrating. The machine that he is calibrating, of course, is himself. This, as I would learn, was a pretty good summary of Sonntags modus operandi as a leader: constantly and carefully adjusting his readings in order to better navigate his expeditions shifting conditions.

Nevertheless, despite the metaphorical implications of his weather-watching, Sonntag was ever focused on the literal. At the weather meeting, I asked him about his concern over some low cloud cover that was developing a situation that could result in scrubbing the flight. Was his concern for the functionality of the aircrafts science equipment, its ice-penetrating radars, its lasers and cameras?

John Sonntag on board Nasas Operation IceBridge research aircraft at Thule airbase, Greenland. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

On that day, as it turned out, Sonntag was more worried about pilot visibility. You know, so we dont fly into a mountain, he explained, without taking his eyes off the blobs dancing across the monitors. That kind of thing.

A few weeks before I met Sonntag, a reporter had asked him: What makes this real to you? The question had startled him, and he was evidently still thinking about it. I honestly didnt know what to say, he told me.

Sonntag cuts a trim, understated figure in his olive green Nasa flight suit, fleece jacket and baseball cap, and his enthusiasms and mellow ironies tend to soften his slow-burn, man-on-a-literal-mission intensity. I could imagine how a reporter might miss the underlying zeal; but get to know Sonntag and youll learn why, even three weeks later, that question was still rattling around his head.

Im still kind of at a loss, to be honest, he told me. What makes it real? I mean, wow, where do I start?

It is indeed a strange question to ask someone who was once on a high-altitude flight when temperatures fell so low that the planes fuel turned solid, almost sending it straight down into Antarctica, directly on to the ice, in the middle of the darkest of nights. Each of the 63 flight plans for this season in the Arctic was the result of months of meticulous planning. A team of polar scientists from across the US sets the research priorities, in collaboration with flight crews, who make sure the routes are feasible; the mission is managed from Nasas Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Sonntag is there at every phase, including at the construction and installation of the scientific instruments, and he is the person in the field responsible for executing the mission. He is supposed to have a plan for every contingency: if the plane goes down on the ice, hes got plans for that, too. He is responsible for making sure that his crew have adequately backed up and stored many terabytes of data, and that their own creature comforts are taken care of. On days off, he cooks gumbo for them.

The reporter probably had something else in mind. The melting of ice, the rising waters, and all the boring-seeming charts that document the connections between the two what makes that real? To Sonntag and his crew, it is as real as the data that they have personally helped fish out of the ice.

Sea levels, which were more or less constant for the past 2,000 years, have climbed at a rate of roughly 1.7mm a year in the past century; in the past 25 years, that rate has doubled to 3.4mm a year, already enough to create adverse effects in coastal areas. A conservative estimate holds that waters will rise roughly 0.9 metres (3ft) by the year 2100, which will place hundreds of millions of people in jeopardy.

Given the scale of sea- and ice-related questions, the vantage point that is needed is from the air and from space, and is best served through large, continuous, state-supported investments: hence Nasa. There is a lot we dont know and a lot that the ice itself, which is a frozen archive of past climate changes, can tell us. But we need the eyes to see it.

First built during the cold warto track Russian submarines, the P-3 Orion aircraft, a four-engine turboprop, is designed for long, low-flying surveillance missions. IceBridges P-3, based at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, is armed with a suite of instruments mounted under the plane and operated by engineers sitting at stations in the cabin. A laser altimetry system which bounces laser beams from the bottom of the aircraft to the top of the ice and back determines the height and topography of the uppermost layer of ice; a digital mapping system takes high-resolution photos of the ice, helping us see the patterns in which it is changing shape; and a radar system sends electromagnetic pulses through the ice, thousands of feet and a hundred thousand years to the land beneath.

This data shows us where the ice is growing and where it is shrinking, and helps researchers determine its current mass. The IceBridge data has also helped create a 3D map of an ice-locked land that no human eyes have ever seen: the territory of Greenland, its mountains, valleys, plains and canyons, and also a clear view of the layers of ice that have grown above it. Nasa repeats its IceBridge flights annually, to chart how the ice changes from year to year, and, by comparison with earlier satellite data, from decade to decade. For the integrity of the data, it is best to repeat the flights over exactly the same terrain. The path of each IceBridge flight must adhere to a line so narrow that they had to invent a new flight navigation system, which Sonntag cannot help but describe with boyish glee (We basically trick the plane into thinking its landing!).

In trying to grasp how the ice works, its necessary to know the shape of the underlying terrain: in places where the land slopes up, for instance, we know that ice will flow slower. IceBridge data helped discover and chart a canyon in northern Greenland the size of the Grand Canyon. In addition to being a wondrous discovery in its own right, this was useful in understanding where, and how, the ice is moving. One effect of this giant canyon system can be seen at the coast, where sea water can seep into cavities, potentially melting lower layers of ice. Other aerial data has shown how glacier fronts, which served as corks holding back the ice flow behind them, have diminished and unleashed the flow, causing more ice to flush into the sea at increasingly rapid paces.

Fantastic 3D maps of the ice sheet created with IceBridge data have also helped researchers locate rare, invaluable Eemian ice, from more than 100,000 years ago. This was an era when the Earth was warm similar to today and in which the seas were many feet higher, which resembles the world to which we are headed. By drilling deep into the ice, glaciologists can excavate ice cores containing specks of materials such as volcanic ash, or frozen bubbles that preserve precious pockets of ancient air that hold chemical samples of long-departed climates. Because of IceBridge data, researchers know where to look for these data-rich ice layers.

These are among the reasons that John Sonntags head hurts, and why he doesnt know where to begin or what to think when people ask him what makes this real for him. Behind even well-meaning questions is a culture of ignorance, or self-interested indifference, that has made it easy for a Republican-led, corporation-owned US government to renege on the Paris climate agreement, to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, and to slash billions of dollars of climate change-related funds from the federal budget this year. When the White House recently proposed cuts to Nasas climate-change research divisions, the media helped them along by burying the story under speciously positive headlines: Trumps Nasa budget supports deep space travel, crowed CBS News. The worlds coasts are facing catastrophic sea rise, but at least Americans can look forward to watching their countrymen grill hot dogs on Mars.

The US built Kangerlussuaqs airfield in the early 1940s, and they still maintain a small airbase there. In 1951, America built a giant fortress on the ice, Thule Air Base, in north-west Greenland strategically equidistant from Russia and the US where it secretly kept armed nuclear weapons. In one of naval historys most ambitious armadas, the Americans cut through the ice, created a port, and effected a conquest second in scope only to the D-day invasion. And all they had to do was uproot an Inuit settlement.

The USs history in Greenland gives the lie to the notion that ice research is inherently peaceful, much less apolitical. Glaciology advanced as a field partly through the work of US scientists serving the needs of their countrys rapidly growing nuclear war machine in the 1960s, helping to build Camp Century, a fabled city under ice in northern Greenland and designing Project Iceworm, a top-secret system of under-ice tunnels nearby, which was intended as a launch site for hidden nuclear missiles. In 1968, at the height of the war in Vietnam, a nuclear-armed B-52 crashed near Thule. A fire, started when a crewman left a pillow over a heating vent, resulted in four atomic weapons hydrogen bombs plunging into the ice, and releasing plutonium into the environment.

When our flight landed in Kangerlussuaq, we passed quickly through passport control, but our bags were nowhere to be found. For 40 minutes we could see the one and only commercial plane at this airfields one and only gate just sitting on the tarmac, with our bags still in it. This wasnt a serious problem Kangerlussuaqs one hotel was just up a short flight of steps from the gate but it did seem odd that the bags hadnt come through customs. Another passenger, sensing my confusion, approached me.

Yankee? he asked.

Yankee, I replied.

Customs, the man told me, was actually just one guy, who had a tendency to mysteriously disappear.

By the way, he added conspiratorially. You know customs here has a special arrangement with the Americans. The customs guy, the stranger told me, turns a blind eye to liquor headed to the US Air Force bar on the other side of the airfield.

Kangerlussuaq (population 500), or as the Yanks prefer to call it, Kanger, still feels like a frontier station. Most locals work either at the airport or at the hotel. Next to the airfields main hangar, local people house the huskies that pull their sledges. The roads of Kangerlussuaq can be dicey; there are no sidewalks. Once you leave the tiny settlement, there arent roads at all; and if you go north or east, of course, theres only ice. Decommissioned US air force Jato bottles jet boosters that, to the untrained eye, resemble small warheads are ubiquitous around Kangerlussuaq, usually as receptacles for discarded cigarette butts. In the hotel cafeteria you can see American and European glaciologists, greeting each other with surprise and hugs, because the last time they met was a year or two ago, when they ran into each other at the other pole.

Kangerlussuaq in Greenland. Photograph: Arterra/UIG/Getty

When I finally got my bag, I made my way down to the 664 barracks, where the crew was staying. But before I met the crew, I met the data itself. In a small, slouchy barracks bedroom, near the front door, I encountered two Nasa servers. IT engineers could, and often would, sit on the bed as they worked.

The window was cracked open, to cool the room and soothe the crackling servers, whose constant low hum, like a shamans chant, was accompanied by the pleasant aroma of gently baking wires one of the more visceral stages of the daily ritual of storing, transferring, copying and processing data captured on the most recent flight. After years of listening to Americans debate the existence of data demonstrating climate change, it was comforting to come in here and smell it.

When I first arrived, I found one of the IT crew, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and slippers, and with big, sad, sleepy, beagle eyes, reclining next to the server, his feet up on a desk, chowing on a Nutella snack pack. He explained the irony of his struggle to keep the servers happy in the far north. A week earlier, when IceBridge was operating its northern flights from Thule Air Base, they couldnt seem to find any way of getting the server rooms temperature down: Were in the Arctic, but our problem is finding cold air.

For a moment he paused to consider the sheer oddness of life, but then he shrugged, and polished off his Nutella snack. But we just chug on, you know? he said.

This attitude captured something essential about IceBridge: its scrappy. Its the kind of operation in which the engineers are expected to bring their own off-the-shelf hardware back-ups from home. (As one radar tech told me: if your keyboard breaks in the Arctic, you cant just go to Walmart and buy a new one.) More than one crew member described IceBridges major piece of hardware, its P-3 aircraft, as a hand-me-down. When the Nasa crew talked about their P-3 they sometimes sounded as though they were talking about a beloved, oversized, elderly pet dog, who can act dopey but, when pressed, is surprisingly agile. IceBridges P-3 is 50 years old, but as one of the navy pilots told me, they baby the hell out of it. It just got a new pair of wings. I got the strong sense that this climate data gathering operation was something of an underdog enterprise the moodier sibling of Nasas more celebrated deep-space projects.

But these unsung flights are not without their own brand of Nasa drama. The IceBridge crew would tell me, with dark humour, the story of the time a plane was in such dire straits that everyone aboard was panicking. One man was staring at a photo of his children on his phone, and in his other hand, was clutching a crucifix. Another man was pinned to the ceiling. Someone actually yelled Were gonna die!, like in the movies. John Sonntag, on the other hand, sat there, serenely assessing the situation.

During my time in Greenland in April this year, I didnt witness Sonntag manage a distressed aircraft, but I did watch him carefully navigate a Nasa crew through a turbulent political season. In the week I was there, the group was preparing for two anxiety-provoking scenarios, courtesy of Washington, DC. One was an imminent visit from several members of Congress. As one engineer put it to me, We just get nervous, honestly, because we dont know what these politicians agenda is: are they friend or foe?

The other was an impending shutdown of the entire US federal government: if Congress didnt make a decision about the budget by Friday that week, the government would close all operations indefinitely. (The sticking point was budgetary questions related to Trumps proposed border wall.) If the government shut down, Operation IceBridge was done for the season; the Nasa crew would be sent home that day.

This had happened before, in 2013, just as IceBridge was en route to Antarctica. Congressional Republicans shut down the government in their effort to thwart Obamas diabolical plot to offer medical care to millions of uninsured Americans. Much of the 2013 mission was cancelled, with millions of dollars, many hundreds of hours of preparation, and, most importantly, critical data, lost.

I still cant really talk about that without feeling those emotions again, Sonntag told me. It was kind of traumatic for us.

The crew of IceBridge was facing an absurd scenario: living in fear of a shutdown of their work by Congress one day and, shortly thereafter, having to smile and impress members of that same Congress.

Conditioned by the tribulationsof modern commercial airline travel, I was unprepared for the casualness of my first Nasa launch. The feeling in the hangar before the flight, and as the crew prepared to launch, was of shift workers who are hyper-attentive to their particular tasks and not the least concerned with gratuitous formalities. The flights were long and the deployments were long; the key to not burning out was to pace oneself and to not linger over anything that wasnt essential. Everyone was a trusted pro and nobody was out to prove anything to anyone else.

Shortly before our 9am takeoff, I asked Sonntag what the plane should feel like when everything was going well what should I be looking for? He smiled sheepishly. To be honest, if you see people sleeping, thats a good sign.

On the eight-hour flights, seeing engineers asleep at their stations meant the instruments below their feet were happily collecting data. For some stretches, there wasnt even data to collect: hours were spent flying between data target sites. (Over the intercom, a pilot would occasionally ask, Hey, we sciencing now or just flying?) Flight crew, who attend to the plane but are not directly connected to the data operation, occupied the cabin like cats, curled up proprietarily, high up on fluffy, folded-up engine covers.

This pervasive somnolence the hypnotic hum of the propellers, the occasional scene of crewmen horsing around in their flight suits, which gave them the look of boys in pajamas coupled with the low-altitude sweeps through fantastic mountains of ice, gave the whole situation a dreamlike quality.

From the windows of the P-3, at 450 metres, you dont need to have read anything about glaciers to know what they are. At that low altitude, you can see the deep textures and the crevasses of the ice, and just how far the glacier extends across the land. The eye immediately grasps that the ice is a creature on the move, positively bursting ahead, while also not appearing to move at all, like a still photo of a rushing river.

A rift across Antarcticas Larsen C ice shelf, seen from an IceBridge flight. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

Seeing the polar ice from above, you get a very different view from that seen by writers in past centuries, who saw this landscape, if at all, by boat or, more likely, from a drawing. But the vision, to them, was clear enough: it was the End, the annihilating whiteness of death and extinction. Herman Melville described this colour as the dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink. This is where so many of those old stories terminated. The Arctic is where the monster in Frankenstein leaps off a ship on to the ice, never to be seen again. Polar settings spell doom for Poes sailors, and Captain Nemo, who are pulled into the icy maelstrom. And celebrated real-life travellers did, in fact, die gruesomely on the ice, in search of the Northwest Passage, or the north pole.

But, from the window of Nasas P-3, that old narrative seems inaccurate. Consider that whiteness, which so terrified Melville and Poe, who ends his Antarctic saga The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym with a horrifying italicised refrain on the word white. But polar snow and ice, precisely because it is white, with a quality known as high albedo, deflects solar energy back into space and helps keep earths climate cool; the loss of all this white material means more heat is absorbed and the earth warms faster. In a variety of other ways, including moderating weather patterns, the ice helps makes life on earth more livable. The extreme conditions of the poles, so useful for instilling fear in 19th-century readers, actually make the world more habitable.

Our bias against the poles can be detected even in that typical term of praise for this icy landscape, otherworldly. This description is exactly incorrect: the Arctic is intimately connected with every other part of the planet.

This, too, is something you can see. Flying over it, at a low altitude, I was struck by the familiarity of the thing, how much of Greenland was a visual echo of my northern homelands. In the muscular frozen ripples of its glaciers, created by an intensely pressured flow, I saw the same strong hand that deeply etched those giant scratches into the big boulders of Central Park in New York City. This isnt an analogy: those marks in Manhattan were made by shifting ice, the very same ice layers that still have a foothold in Greenland. I grew up, and have spent most of my life, in Ohio and New England, places that were carved out by that ice: ponds originally made of meltwater from the last great ice age, low hills smoothed over by retreating glaciers. That old ice gave shape and signature to almost every important place in my life, and in the lives of so many others. And, in the future, this ice will continue to shape the places were from, right before our eyes. It is only our ignorance that makes us call it otherworldly.

But even as we passed through this landscape, even as the lasers and radars took their deep gulps of data from the ice, I could hear expressions of anxiety from the data hunters. At the same time that were getting better at gathering this data, we seem to be losing the ability to communicate its importance to the public, one engineer told me four hours into a flight, during a transit between glaciers.

You can hear this anxiety surface in the humour floating around the crew. I heard one engineer joke that it might be easier to just rig up a data randomising machine, since many people out there seem to think thats what their data is anyway.

I mean, itd be much easier, and cheaper, to do maintenance on that, he pointed out.

In another conversation, about how to increase public awareness about climate change in the US, I asked one of the senior crew members whether they would welcome a writer from Breitbart aboard one of these flights.

Oh, absolutely, he said. Id love for them to see what were doing here. I think sitting on this plane, seeing the ice, and watching the data come in would be incredibly eye-opening for them.

His optimism was inspiring and worrisome to me.

The mantra of the crew is no politics. I heard it said over and over again: just stick to the job, dont speak above your pay grade. But, of course, you dont need to have a no-politics policy unless your work is already steeped in politics.

Glaciers on the Greenland ice sheet, observed by the IceBridge crew. Photograph: Jeremy Harbeck/Icebridge/NASA

Speaking with one of the scientific researchers mid-flight, I got a very revealing reply. When I asked this researcher about the anthropogenesis of climate change, the tone changed. What had been a comfortable chat became stilted and deliberate. There was a little eye-roll toward my audio recorder. Suddenly my interlocutor, a specialist in ice, got pedantic, telling me that there were others more qualified to speak about rising sea levels. I offered to turn off my recorder. As soon as it was off, the researcher spoke freely and with the confidence of a leading expert in the field. The off-the-record view expressed wasnt simply one of sober agreement with the scientific consensus, but of passionate outrage. Of course climate change is related to human activity! Weve all seen the graphs!

The tonal difference between this off-the-record answer and the taped answer that I should consult someone else told me all I needed to know. Or so I thought the researcher then asked me to turn my recorder back on: there was one addendum, for the record.

Richard Nixon, the researcher said, looking down at the red recording light. Nixon established some good climate policy. Theres a tradition in both parties of doing this work. And, I mean, if Nixon

The researcher laughed a bit, realising how this was sounding. Well, thats what Im hanging my hopes on, anyway.

Over the planes open intercom, there was suddenly, and uncharacteristically, talk of the days headlines. While we were in flight, people around the world were marking Earth Day by demonstrating in support of climate rationality and against the current US regime. On Twitter, #MarchForScience was trending at the exact moment Nasas P-3 was out flying for science. There was even a local protest: American and European scientists took to the street of Kangerlussuaq for a small but high-profile demonstration. While it was happening, one of the engineers piped up on the P-3s intercom.

Anyone else sorry to be missing the march?

But the earnest question was only met with silence and a few jokes. Among the Nasa crew, there had been some talk about trying to do a flyover of the Kangerlussuaq march, to take an aerial photo of it, but the plan was nixed for logistical reasons. The timing was off. The senior crew seemed relieved that it was out of the question.

Later that week, after my second and final flight making a total of 16 hours in the air with Nasa the crew retreated to the barracks for a quick science meeting, beers in hand, followed by a family-style dinner. We dont seem to get enough of each other here, one of the engineers told me, as he poured a glass of wine over ice that the crew had harvested from the front of a glacier the day before. One of the engineers asked a glaciologist about the age of this block of ice, and frowned at the disappointing reply: it probably wasnt more than a few hundred years old.

Well, thats still older than America, right? he said.

Outside, the sky wasnt dark, though it was past 10pm. In a couple of months, there would be sunlight all night. After dinner, one of the crews laser technicians lounged on a couch, playing an acoustic version of the song Angie over and over again, creating a pleasantly mesmerising effect. Two crew members talked of killer methane gas. But most sat around, drinking and telling stories. One of the pilots tried to convince someone he had seen a polar bear from the cockpit that day. These deployments are tiring, someone told me. Bullshitting is critical.

One of the crew spent his off-days on excursions with a camera-equipped drone, and had made spectacular videos of his explorations, which he edited and set to moody Bush tunes. I joined the crew as they gathered around his laptop to watch his latest. There was something moving in seeing these people who had spent all day, and indeed many months and years, flying over ice and obsessing over ice-related data now spending their free time relaxing by watching videos of yet more ice.

As usual, politics soon crept into the picture. The next video that popped up was footage recently shot at the Thule base. The video showed some of this same Nasa crew hiking through an abandoned concrete bunker, a former storage site for US Nike anti-aircraft missiles. Today its just an eerie, rusted, shadow-filled underground space, its floor covered in thick ice. When these images came on the screen, the crew fell quiet, watching themselves, only a week ago, putting on ice skates and doing figure-eights over the ruins of their countrys cold war weapons systems.

An engineer chipped a shard off the frozen block harvested the day before. Perhaps sensing my mood, he dropped it into a glass and poured me some whiskey over ice older than America and said: Well anyway, maybe thisll cheer you up.

Early the next morning, before the crew boarded the P-3 for another eight-hour flight over polar ice, a rare political debate broke out. Four of the crew were discussing the imminent Congressional visit, which prompted one of the veteran pilots to recite, once again, the mission mantra: Stick to science: no politics. But because that approach felt increasingly less plausible in 2017, one of the ice specialists, feeling frustrated, launched into a small speech about how Americans dont take data seriously, and how its going to kill us all. Nobody disagreed. Someone jokingly said: Maybe its best if you dont fly today. To which another added, Yeah, you should stay on the ground and just do push-ups all day.

Finally, John Sonntag who had been too busy reviewing flight plans to hear the chatter stood up and tapped his watch. OK guys, he said. Lets go. Its time to fly.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/27/watching-ice-melt-inside-nasas-mission-to-the-north-pole

Jennifer Doudna: I have to be true to who I am as a scientist

Crispr developer Jennifer Doudna speaks about finding the gene-editing tool, the split with her partner and the complex principles of hereditary control

Jennifer Doudna , 53, is an American biochemist based at the University of California, Berkeley. Together with the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, she led the discovery of the innovative gene-editing tool, Crispr . The innovation has the possible to get rid of formerly incurable illness, however likewise positions ethical concerns about the possible unexpected effects of overwriting the human genome.

Were you unpopular as a kid? What got you hooked on science?
Yes, I was unpopular. My daddy was a teacher of American literature in Hawaii and he enjoyed books. One day I got back from school and he had actually dropped a copy of The Double Helix on the bed, by Jim Watson. One rainy afternoon I read it and I was simply shocked. I was blown away that you might do experiments about exactly what a particle appears like. I was most likely 12 or 13. I believe that was the start of beginning to believe, Wow, that might be a remarkable thing to deal with.

Youve invested the majority of your profession uncovering the structure of RNA and never ever set out to develop a tool to copy and paste human genes. How did you end up dealing with Crispr?
I believe you can put researchers into 2 containers. One is the type who dives really deeply into one subject for their entire profession and they understand it much better than anyone else worldwide. Theres the other pail, where I would put myself, where its like youre at a buffet table and you see a fascinating thing here and do it for a while, and that links you to another intriguing thing and you take a bit of that. Thats how I became dealing with Crispr it was an overall side-project.

But when you initially began your partnership with Emmanuelle Charpentier, did you have an inkling you were on to something unique?
We fulfilled at a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and walked around the old town together. She was so enthusiastic, her enjoyment was really transmittable. I still keep in mind strolling down this street with her and she stated: Well Im actually delighted you wish to deal with us on the mystical [Cas9 the enzyme that snips DNA at the picked area in the modifying procedure] It was this sort of electrifying minute. Even then I simply had this suspicion that this was something truly intriguing.

How essential is individual chemistry in science partnerships?
Its vital. Operating in a laboratory is comparable to being in a high-school play: youre practicing long hours, its crowded, there are demanding things that turn up. Its the exact same thing in science. Things never ever work as you believe they will, experiments stop working therefore to have individuals around that truly agree each other is extremely essential. Lots of partnerships do not exercise, normally even if individuals interests aren’t lined up or individuals do not truly like collaborating.

The genuine craze around your work began in 2012, when you revealed that Crispr-Cas9 might be utilized to slice DNA at any website [of the DNA particle] you desired. Did you understand this was a huge offer slowly or instantly?
It wasnt a steady realisation, it was among those OMG minutes where you take a look at each other and state holy moly. This was something we hadnt thought of in the past, today we might see how it worked, we might see it would be such a wonderful method to do gene modifying.

After you showed Crispr might modify bacterial DNA, 2 competing laboratories (Harvard and the Broad Institute) arrived initially in human cells. How come they beat you to it?
They were definitely established to do that type of experiment. They had all the tools, the cells growing, whatever existed. For us, they were difficult experiments to do due to the fact that its not the sort of science we do. What speaks to the ease of the system was that a laboratory like mine might even do it.

The Broad Institute won the current round of a continuous legal fight over patent rights they declare that it wasnt apparent that Crispr might be utilized to modify human cells too. Where do you stand?
Individuals have asked me over and over once again: Did you understand it was going to work? Up until you do an experiment you do not understand thats science. Ive been berated for this in the media, however I need to be real to who I am as a researcher. We definitely had a hypothesis and it definitely appeared like a great guess that it would.

Theres the patent disagreement and you and Emmanuelle Charpentier likewise wound up pursuing competing jobs to commercialise the innovation. Are you all still pals?
Clinically if theres an unhappiness to me about all of this and a lot of its been truly interesting and fantastic its that I wouldve liked to continue working with Emmanuelle. For numerous factors that wasnt preferable to her. Im not blaming her at all she had her factors and I appreciate her a lot.

The media enjoys to own wedges, however we are extremely cordial. I was simply with her in Spain and she was informing me about the obstacles [of developing her brand-new laboratory in Berlin] I hope on her side, definitely on my side, we appreciate each others work and in the end were all in it together.

In your book you explain a headache you had including Hitler using a pig mask, asking to read more about your incredible innovation. Do you still have stress and anxiety dreams about where Crispr might leave the mankind?
I had the Hitler dream and Ive had a few other extremely frightening dreams, practically like problems, which is rather uncommon for a grownup. Not a lot recently, however in the very first number of years after I released my work, the field was moving so quickly. I had this extraordinary sensation that the science was going out method ahead of any factors to consider about principles, social ramifications and whether we ought to be fretting about random individuals in numerous parts of the world utilizing this for dubious functions.

In 2015, you called for a moratorium on the medical usage of gene modifying. Where do you base on utilizing Crispr to modify embryos nowadays?
It shouldnt be utilized medically today, however in the future potentially. Thats a huge modification for me. In the beginning, I simply believed why would you ever do it? I began to hear from individuals with hereditary illness in their household this is now taking place every day for me. A great deal of them send me photos of their kids. There was one that I cant stop considering, simply sent out to me in the last 10 days approximately. A mom who informed me that her infant child was detected with a neurodegenerative illness, triggered by an erratic unusual anomaly. She sent me a photo of this little young boy. He was this charming little infant, he was bald, in his little provider therefore adorable. I have a child and my heart simply broke.

What would you do as a mom? You see your kid and hes gorgeous, hes best and you understand hes going to struggle with this awful illness and theres absolutely nothing you can do about it. Its terrible. Getting exposed to that, being familiar with a few of these individuals, its not abstract anymore, its extremely individual. And you believe, if there were a method to assist these individuals, we must do it. It would be incorrect not to.

What about the spectre of designer infants?
A great deal of it will boil down to whether the innovation is reliable and safe, exist options that would be similarly reliable that we should think about, and exactly what are the wider social ramifications of enabling gene modifying? Are individuals going to begin stating I desire a kid thats 6ft 5in and has blue eyes and so on? Do we truly wish to go there? Would you do things that are not clinically required however are simply nice-to-haves, for some individuals? Its a difficult concern. There are a great deal of grey locations.

Are you fretted about cuts to science financing, consisting of to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spending plan?
I am extremely worried. Science financing is not a political football however in truth a deposit on discovery, the seed cash to money a crucial action towards treating or ending alzheimers cancer.

Researchers presently dealing with jobs targeted at enhancing many elements of our health, farming and environment might be required to desert their work. The result is that individuals will not get the medical treatments they require, our battle to feed our blowing up population will deepen, and our efforts to handle environment modification will collapse.

Over the long term, the really function of essential science as a method to much better our society might enter into concern. When we influence and support our clinical neighborhood we advance our method of life and grow, history and all proof points to the reality that.

Were you interrupted when Trump tweeted, If U.C. Berkeley does not permit complimentary speech and practices violence on innocent individuals with a various perspective NO FEDERAL FUNDS? in reaction to a prepared alt-right speaker being cancelled due to violent demonstrations on school?
Yes. It was a complicated tweet given that the university was plainly dedicated to making sure that the occasion would continue securely and initially modification rights were supported. Couple of anticipated the dreadful actions of a couple of to be consulted with a desire from the greatest workplace to deny more than 38,000 trainees access to an education.

Youve spoken at Davos, shared the $3m 2015 Breakthrough reward , been noted amongst the 100 most prominent individuals worldwide by Time publication. Are you still inspired about heading into the laboratory nowadays?
The other day I was preparing to go to an elegant supper. I remained in a mixed drink dress and had my makeup on and my hair done, however I wished to speak with a postdoc in my laboratory about an experiment he was doing, so I texted him stating can we Skype? It was 8am in California, I was over here [in the UK] in my complete evening dress, discussing the experiment. Thats how unpopular I am.

A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Sam Sternberg is released by The Bodley Head (20). To buy a copy for 17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 03303336846. Free UK p &p over 10, online orders just. Phone orders minutes p &p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/02/jennifer-doudna-crispr-i-have-to-be-true-to-who-i-am-as-a-scientist-interview-crack-in-creation

Why Silicon Valley wants to thwart the grim reaper | John Naughton

Dean Charlton’s #FTHM Amazing Photography Competition is still open for entries

Googles billion-dollar belief that it can crack the DNA code to immortality reveals a dangerous mindset

In this world, wrote Benjamin Franklin, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. This proposition doesnt cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. Whats interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Googles owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will solve death. He pitched the idea to Googles co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page and, according to a lovely piece by Tad Friend in the New Yorker, Brin, who has a gene variant that predisposes him to Parkinsons disease, loved the idea and Page declared that Google should do it.

Thus was born Calico, which is short for the California Life Company, in 2013. It started with a billion dollars in the bank and is extremely secretive. All thats known, Friend writes, is that its tracking 1,000 mice from birth to death to try to determine biomarkers of ageing biochemical substances whose levels predict morbidity; that it has a colony of naked mole rats, which live for 30 years and are amazingly ugly; and that it has invested in drugs that may prove helpful with diabetes and Alzheimers.

Calico is a typical product of the reality distortion field that is Silicon Valley. Its a salutary illustration of how sudden and unimaginable wealth can warp minds. There are people in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Cupertino who truly believe they are living in the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. Their religion is what Neil Postman called Technopoly and their prevailing mindset is what the technology critic Evgeny Morozov describes as solutionism, the belief that all problems have technological solutions.

It turns out that death is now perceived as just such a problem. Friend quotes a hedge-fund manager waxing lyrical on this. I have the idea, he burbles, that ageing is plastic, that its encoded. If something is encoded, you can crack the code. If you can crack the code, you can hack the code! Cue loud applause from the elite audience gathered in a Californian drawing room to discuss the secrets of longevity.

Thats not to say that longevity isnt important or relevant. In most societies, people are living longer and thats now giving rise to acute social, psychological and economic stress. Just ask anyone who works in the NHS. Dementia and Parkinsons disease are laying waste to an increasing number of human minds, while heart disease, cancer and diabetes are making our bodies progressively enfeebled. We live longer but our closing years can be miserable, lonely and largely pointless.

So its worth pouring resources into understanding and eventually curing these diseases. But the point of that is not to abolish death but to make the natural process of ageing more tolerable towards the end. And thats what the majority of scientists and doctors are trying to achieve. They want us to have healthier lives and compressed morbidity, which is a polite term for a quick and painless death at the end.

The Silicon Valley crowd want something else, though: they seek to make death optional. And they think it can be done. After all, as some wag put it decades ago: Death is natures way of telling you youre fired. Once we have mated and brought up some children, evolution regards us as disposable, past our sell-by date. So it has arranged that somewhere in our DNA are genes that will progressively trigger ageing processes, eventually causing our bodies to fail. To computer people, DNA is just code and code can always be hacked. So all we have to do is find the offending genes, edit them using Crispr and bingo! immortality beckons.

You have to marvel at the one-dimensionality of minds that can think like this. Apart from anything else, death is what gives meaning to life. Its also the process that ensures human vitality: young people arrive with ideas that their elders never had and death makes room for them to grow, thrive and die in their turn. Thats why elite US universities, which do not have a retirement age for tenured professors, are increasingly desperate to find ways to incentivise them to quit.

Given that Silicon Valley billionaires are smart, they must know all this. So could it be that what underpins this strange new obsession with ensuring immortality is something more straightforward? Could it be that they all became wealthy at such a young age? So they have these unimaginable riches and have suddenly realised that they dont have an infinite time to enjoy them. Ones heart bleeds for the poor lambs. Not.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/09/silicon-valley-wants-to-cheat-grim-reaper-google