GOING DUTCH? COMPARING THE LAW ON ASSISTED SUICIDE
In his talk at the end of December, Dr McCann initially compared the law on assisted dying in the Netherlands, Switzerland and within England and Wales.
The talk then split into three parts focusing upon the law as it stands in England and Wales:
The law on assisted dying
The ethics of assisted dying
The politics behind assisted dying
LAW: We explored the differences between the law in England and Wales divided into
the law ‘in the book’ and
the law ‘in action’
LAW IN ACTION: Having explored the law as it stands here at present the example was given that of the 138 cases of assisted suicide reported to the DPP since 2009 NONE have been taken to court.
ETHICS: Dr McCann further looked in some depth at the ethics of assisted dying and then explored the question:
Why are politicians so unwilling to reform the law on assisted dying in England and Wales?
POLITICS: Exploring what Dr McCann called political game theory which, in essence highlights the fact that:
politicians want re-election
no pressure from special interest groups such as the GMC to reform
no re-election interests in putting “assisted dying” on the manifesto – thus
NO CHANGE IN THE LAW
THE MUSICALLY EXTENDED MIND
In his lecture in February Dr Joel Krueger, both a philosopher and cognitive scientist, ‘extended’ the minds of some thirty-five U3A attendees with a fascinating lecture on musical worlds and the extended mind.
He initially highlighted some general ideas concerning cognition:
Apparently within the past few decades, many in philosophy and cognitive science have questioned the ‘neural sufficiency assumption’ – the notion that neural mechanisms are always and everywhere sufficient for cognition – i.e. the mind = the brain. According to ‘4E Cognition’, minds are embodied,
embedded, enactive and perhaps even extended. Cognition is not just in the head. It routinely spills out into, and through the body, as well as the surrounding environment.
A central feature of 4E approaches is the notion of ‘offloading’ – i.e. we think and feel using resources from our bodies and the surrounding environment. Offloading occurs when we use physical actions to alter the information-processing requirements of a task to reduce the cognitive load. We offload onto ‘cognitive scaffolding’ which are the artefacts, processes and environments which amplify and regulate our cognitive capacities. A dynamic feedback mechanism from these processes transforms our cognition, i.e. otherwise inaccessible forms of cognition become available to us, e.g. enhanced memory.
It can therefore be concluded that the cognitive process extends across brain-body-world interactions. And so extended mind theorists claim that part of the ‘machinery’ of cognition extends beyond brain and body, the so called ‘location claim’, and secondly, the ‘beyond the head machinery’ like smartphones, MP3 players, are actually part of our cognitive processes, the so called ’constitution claim’.
Dr Krueger then posed the question: ‘What about the extended mind and art?’ Specifically, ‘What about the extended mind and music?’
The main idea according to Dr Krueger is that philosophers should pay more attention to the everyday materiality of music, which illuminates how we use music to construct musical worlds. We play music – we use it as scaffolding for constructing a self-styled micro soundworld – and then by temporarily inhabiting this soundworld, we offload some of the emotional and regulatory functions that normally fall within the scope of our internal capacities.
In other words, music is a resource for creating musically scaffolded worlds that afford offloading. Two key ideas are that firstly, music is always embedded in artefacts of material culture which shape how we experience music and what to do with it. Secondly, micro environments or musical worlds afford us on demand “here and now” synchronic self regulation of our emotions and attention. By virtue of their portability and personalised character, MP3 players and smartphones are powerful tools for on-demand self care.
In shared open- plan office settings, workers routinely use music to construct ‘auditory bubbles’. These individualised soundworlds within public spaces help reclaim individual space, occluding environmental distractions by creating preferred auditory environments which are conducive to work. They also provide synchronic resources to help manage attention spans, feelings and energy.
We also use music to intensify our moods like choosing to listen to ‘happy’ music or ‘melancholic’ music - a way of exploring emotion. This can be a cathartic experience - when scaffolded by music, the experience of grief e.g., takes on a particular intensity, depth and temporal character. There is a functional gain. Clarke (2018) suggests that the music may also function as a kind of virtual other, empathic presence, providing comfort and insight. This may explain the motivation to listen to sad music when sad. ‘Musicking’ (any activity involving or related to music performance, listening, rehearsing, composing) is a richly cross-modal, whole body experience.
Dr Krueger further explained that music also solicits entrainment responses. In the biomusicological sense, entrainment refers to the synchronisation of humans (and some organisms) to an external perceived rhythm, pulse or beat, e.g. tapping foot to the rhythm of music or dance. Dr Krueger showed us two highly entertaining youtube video clips of a toddler at the back of a singing choir seemingly spontaneously conducting the singing, and a baby suddenly waking to music and moving into rhythmic arm movements in beat to the music. Music entrainment is the ‘glue’ which links the listener with the musical scaffolding at neural, physiological and behavioural levels.
Noteworthy is that we are vulnerable to musical worlds that are not of our making. With reference to various empirical studies, Dr Krueger described weaponised musical worlds and involuntary offloading. Our attention and emotion can be co-opted and behaviour can be regulated in deep and subtle ways. It is well established that loud music is used as an element of detention and “harsh interrogation” by USA authorities as part of the so-called “global war on terror”. Loud music is played both to groups of prisoners as well as during individual interrogations. The body is bombarded with relentless acoustical energy which elicits an array of neurophysiological entrainment responses and experiences beyond personal control. This loud relentless weaponised musical world in which music becomes sheer sound, results in prisoners becoming unwilling parts of a musically extended cognitive system losing a sense of space and any ability to self regulate. There is also apparently ample evidence that background music while shopping has a significant influence on both what consumers buy and how much they will pay.
Dr Krueger then posed the question: ‘What about empathy?’
Musical worlds can be organised to promote cooperation and affiliation. Various empirical studies have demonstrated how participants report feeling more connected when rocking together in a musical space.
sues; description of creating musical worlds with prenatal babies in neonatal intensive care units to promote a healthy growing environment; movements of infants attuned to the rhythm in mother’s voice, earworms, and more…..
We all agreed it was a most fascinating, informative and stimulating topic. Thank you Dr Krueger!
EFFECS OF SHATAVARI SUPPLEMENT ON BONE HEALTH
Twenty-five women attended this lecture in April. Dr. Mary O'Leary began by explaining that the Shatavari plant - Asparagus racemosus - is part of the Asparagus family of plants and grows in India and Nepal. It is one of many plants used in the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine originating in the Indian subcontinent and has been used as an aphrodisiac and to encourage breast milk in nursing mothers, increasing infant weight gain. Shatavari contains phyto-oestrogens and steriodal saponins.
Through various graphs she illustrated that the menopause triggers a dramatic drop in oestrogen and a subsequent loss of bone and muscle mass (unlike men of a similar age). Bone mass loss can also increase the incidence of Type II diabetes. Scares about Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) have damaged its reputation and uptake is now low so there is a search for an alternative therapy – perhaps Shatavari?
Dr. O'Leary's study is looking for women who are over sixty, with a body mass index (BMI) of under thirty, no osteoporosis or taking medicines to prevent this condition and who have not had HRT in the last five years. The trial of the Shatavari plant will be supplied with the supplement by Pukka Herbs but Dr. O'Leary emphasised that the company had no input into the design of this study.
Twenty-four women are sought and twelve will be given a placebo and twelve the Shatavari supplement over a six-week period. They will be required to make three visits to the labs, the first to discuss their input in the trial, the second and third to take blood samples and (under local anaesthetic) a muscle biopsy, plus tests of leg strength and hand grip which will take approximately one to one and a half hours. They will be offered breakfast after the visit.
There were lots of questions about the muscle biopsy and we were reassured that gentle aftercare and no immersion in water for five days would result in complete healing.
If you are interested in taking part in the trial or want to ask more questions, please contact Dr. Mary O'Leary via her email M.Oleary@exeter.ac.uk.
WHY GRAMMAR MATTERS: GRAMMAR TO SHAPE MEANING
Fifty-two members attended this talk in April, given by Dr. Sue Jones. Traditional methods of teaching multiplication tables, cursive handwriting (now abandoned in countries such as Finland in favour of touch typing and speed texting) and grammar have gone in and out of vogue in the last few years. Despite the fact that a good command of language and knowledge of grammar is very important for the authors of training manuals, scientific reports, minutes of meetings, legal documents etc., the teaching of grammar was abandoned in the 1960s. It was thought to stifle creativity. When the teaching of grammar was restored to the curriculum in 1995, many teachers found themselves to be in the position of having to teach a subject which they themselves had not been taught. Dr. Jones herself had not encountered formal grammar until she needed it to learn French.
It quickly became apparent that Dr. Jones’ research was carried out mainly with reference to “creative” writing, a subject not really taught to most of us who had studied English Language and English Literature for GCE ‘O’ Level. Her research had involved interviewing writers such as Hilary Mantel and exploring how they felt about grammar. Some would ignore grammar completely. (Think of Kerouac’s “stream of consciousness” writing). Others use poetic licence to break the rules for effect. For example, there are quite a few well known sentences beginning with “And”. Thus, Michael Morpurgo: “And out of the mists came a figure in flowing green, walking across the water.” Many writers have strong feelings about the use of grammar, perhaps because it is ingrained, drummed into them in their early years. Author Philip Pullman, writing in The Guardian in 2005, was very much against the idea of giving young children formal instruction relating to syntax and parts of speech. He claimed that such instruction was recommended by “the political right to make children better writers, politer, more patriotic and less likely to become pregnant”! He was scathing about the “common sense” approach which, he felt, stifled the creative approach. Dr. Jones asked her audience to stop and think about how they had learned grammar, whether they had good “grammar knowledge” and what they thought was the value of grammatical knowledge.
She continued with some observations about how young children gradually acquired the use of language. She observed that, to a certain extent, they learned how to apply some of the rules without knowing of the existence of those rules. For example, a small child might say “I digged the garden”, illustrating an understanding of the past tense, despite declining the verb incorrectly. Dr. Jones suggested that the teaching goal was to open a repertoire of infinite possibilities for young children rather than teaching them very precise ways of communicating. Most important was “learning how to mean”.
This led on to discussion about the ordering of a sentence such as the above-mentioned words of Michael Morpurgo or in Charles Dickens’ description of Magwitch. We thought about where the emphasis would be put when such sentences were read aloud and how the meaning could be altered by reordering the phrases in a sentence. This, then, is the element of creativity – manipulating descriptive phrases, as opposed to writing simple factual sentences. This led on to a class exercise in which noun phrases, relative clauses, prepositional phrases etc. could be used to develop character and paint pictures. Various examples of such phrases were suggested, e.g. “sporting an unnaturally thick neck”, “bald and brown-eyed”, “with a mouth ready to smile even when at rest” etc. This sort of grammar teaching at secondary level could help children who were not instinctively creative to realise that they could in fact write creatively.
The conclusion was that the way forward was to integrate grammar meaningfully into teaching and show students how their grammatical choices could affect meaning. Teaching of grammar was not so much about obedience to rules as about the nurturing of a repertoire which could generate infinite possibilities. And, of course, most important of all, is to read.
The event had to be drawn to a close due to time constraints, but there was nevertheless some animated discussion afterwards. It is to be hoped that the enthusiasm of teachers such as Dr. Jones will help young people to continue the great tradition of English literature in spite of the period of technological revolution in which we are living.
ANCIENT RECIPES FOR WELLBEING
Thirty-eight members attended this event which was, unbelievably, nothing to do with food. My greed was not assuaged until later provided with a satisfactory lunch. Rather, it was an excellent Powerpoint-assisted presentation in the morning, followed by small group discussions and plenary in the afternoon, both of which provided much food for thought, a veritable feast of the mind. (I’ll stop the food-related analogies now, I promise).
The presentation was an analysis of two schools of philosophical thought, Virtue Ethics (Stoics) and Life of Pleasure (Epicurus). I wasn’t familiar with either of these philosophies, so hope I have managed to understand and outline what each constituted.
In essence, Virtue Ethics is about character building, of moderation and self-control. The Stoic worldview equates happiness with living according to nature, an optimistic outlook on the world and our role in it. My understanding of this philosophy was of a life lived with the good of society its principal tenet.
The Epicurean Worldview, Epicurus’ Life of Pleasure, is predicated on the belief that life has no meaning apart from the one we choose to give it, but we can make the most of it by trying to maximise the things that are beneficial to us and avoid those that are harmful. My understanding here was of Epicureanism being a philosophy with individual happiness at its core.
Group discussions centred around two topics, viz: Quality versus quantity of life; and Pleasure versus
virtues (selfishness versus altruism).
Interesting and lively discussions ensued. Much to digest! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). My only small quibble - it was often difficult to hear the questions/viewpoints put forward by audience members in the plenary session. Despite this, I found this workshop stimulating and thought-provoking, so much so that I have expressed interest in participating in follow-up sessions.
TO BEARD OR NOT TO BEARD
– THE SURPRISING HISTORY OF FACIAL HAIR
Fifteen Exeter U3A members (including two bearded men) enjoyed a lively and interactive session with Dr Alun Withey, Senior Lecturer in History in the Centre for Medical History. Alun has been working on a project backed by the Wellcome Trust, The History of Facial Hair 1650 – 1900, mainly looking at this country – although worldwide, beards have always carried significant meaning, in line with local cultures, often being seen as a rite of passage from the fresh-faced beauty of youth to 'nature's mark of manhood.'
Here, attitudes have constantly shifted and the working man would emulate their leaders, just as fashions follow celebrities today. The 'spade' beard of Henry VIII's time represented a spade to bury the enemy. The thin pointed style of Van Dyke and Francis Drake was the 'stiletto' beard. Later, the austere Puritan beliefs of the Roundheads saw a beard called a 'fatuous bauble' and led to insistence on clean shaving, with ideas such as 'the cult of youth' and 'opening the countenance' symbolising an open mind. Beards were confined to 'rustics' and eccentrics.
For many years there was a strong connection with medicine. In the 17th century all hair was thought to originate deep in the body, bringing waste products (even the residue of the production of sperm) to the outside, and relieving heat in the brain. Abundant hair was therefore encouraged – an earlier restorer being made of smashed-up bees mixed with 'sallad oile.' Early barbers were also surgeons – Henry VIII established 'The Worshipful Company of Barber/Surgeons.' As beards became smaller and then disappeared, barbers had queues down the street. Razors, soap and mirrors being very expensive, it was cheaper for the working man to visit a barber twice-weekly, especially on Saturday night ready for Church the following morning. Rather alarmingly, London barbers were shaving sixty men an hour (including lathering), with cut-throat razors. In the mid-18th century however, surgery became its own profession. The work and status of barbers decreased as razors were increasingly sold to the public by instrument-makers and cutlers, together with 'shave-yourself' manuals.
Clean shaving lasted for well over 150 years, all during the 18th century and into the mid-19th century, by which time ordinary women, who had featured very little in recorded history, were starting to have a voice. In response to this, and other societal changes: the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of science, and the far-flung explorations of the Victorian heroes, men decided that the way to emphasise their hardness, decisiveness and toughness was to grow huge bushy beards. 'Men need a beard, as they go out to work,' they thought; a beard kept the throat and chest protected, trapped smogs and smuts, and disguised acne. Prisoners were allowed 'chinstrap' beards, skirting their jawlines. To achieve this they were given razors – with predictable results....
By the start of the 19thcentury the arguments about the health benefits of beards seemed a bit silly and another trend for clean-shaving emerged, although until 1916, Army servicemen were required to have a moustache (sailors were still allowed to have beards, to keep their faces warm). Charlie Chaplin publicised the 'toothbrush' moustache, and fashions and debates over facial, head and body hair have carried on. Until, continuing the medical link, we now have 'Movember - changing the face of Men's Health.'
STUDENTS’ GRAND CHALLENGES WEEK AND SHOWCASE
As members of the University Liaison Project Team, we thoroughly enjoyed being invited to participate in the Student Grand Challenges event 2019 in June. While we frequently engage with academics and postgraduate students undertaking research, it was a new and exciting opportunity for us to be involved with undergraduate students. We found the students we worked with inspirational in their enthusiasm and their interest in the area which we represented, Mental Health and the Elderly. They were very keen on the idea of interaction between the generations and exchanging skills and ideas; we were impressed by how quickly they understood some of the problems of the older generation and at the same time were able to see similarities between these and the mental health problems of their own much younger generation and how working together across the generation gap could prove enormously beneficial to both groups. Beyond the group we were closely involved with and considering the event as a whole, the week’s programme was really impressive and the outcomes from all the different groups were beyond any of my expectations. The final day’s formal presentation together with the displays in the Forum, which were open to all, was an amazing showcase of the high level achievement of these students in terms of their abilities, working together across disciplines, applying their energy and positive, can-do attitude to tackling some serious real-world issues. We came away with a real sense of optimism for the future in the hands of these young people, which was such a tonic given the pervasive doom and gloom that tends to surround us at the moment!
Trudi Learmouth and Carol McCullough
PALESTINE IS STILL THE ISSUE
In July around twenty Exeter U3A members enjoyed the most low-tech talk since we started our link with the University of Exeter! Prof Pappe sat on a stool with a glass of water next to him – no Powerpoint slides – not even a board pen – and no notes………….storytelling really. As an Israeli academic and activist, he told us that whoever gave us a talk on the subject of Palestine would be biased in some way. This was a great way to start and very much endeared him to his audience.
Prof Pappe is one of Israel’s new historians who, since the release of British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been rewriting the history of Israel’s creation in 1948 and the corresponding flight of 700,000 Palestinians in the same year. He has called this ‘ethnic cleansing’ and documents the expulsion in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, published in 2006. Prof Pappe blames the creation of Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East, arguing that Zionism is more dangerous than Islamic militancy. Prof Pappe told us that he supports the one-state solution, which envisages a binational state for Palestinians and Israelis. His work has been both supported and criticized by other historians. Before he left Israel in 2008, he had been condemned in the Knesset, Israel's parliament; a minister of education had called for him to be sacked; his photograph had appeared in a newspaper at the centre of a target; and he had received several death threats. Prof Pappe answered a variety of questions from our usual challenging and stimulating U3A audience and we came away with a deeper insight into the complications of the Palestinian question.
U3A SHARED LEARNING PROJECT: ANCIENT RECIPES FOR HAPPINESS AND HAPPINESS IN THE THIRD AGE.
In September, sixteen members met with Gabriele Galluzzo (philosopher) and Sanja Djerasimovic (education researcher) from the University of Exeter to share ideas about what form a research project might take on happiness in the Third Age. This would be ongoing as mutually arranged until 2020, the final form and presentation to be agreed.
Gabrielle hoped that looking at the ancients different and divergent models of happiness and well being (handout provided in support) would help shape the morning’s discussion, not with any psychological emphasis but in terms of what people think and have thought makes life complete. Reflecting on the ancients answers against a common agreed background he suggested there were three primary questions to address that were equally relevant for us to ask today. First, how much is enough? How much do we need to be happy? Is there a guiding principle such as “not to lose our tranquillity? Secondly, what is the relationship of emotion to thought? Can an emotion for example love blind us to good sense? Do our emotions need educating? Thirdly, do we have to care for other people? Does sharing a life with others, living together with others lead us to extend to others what we extend to ourselves?
Sanja suggested that in finding what contemporary opinion might be as against these ancient considerations we will need to talk together about using the methods of social research specifically interview methods to answer our questions, together with the philosophy underlying these methods. She outlined the elements of this approach in an informative and understandable handout. After a short break the membership split into three to discuss what most interested us in relation to the preceding introductions. The conclusions reached recorded to build on the ideas so far shared.
The next workshop would consist of a smaller membership of eight from those U3A participants of this first introductory session and it would be more intensive. Gabrielle and Sanja would come up with a suggested structure to the research for the eight prospective interviewers to consider.
CAN HUMANITY ACT TO AVOID CLIMATE BREAKDOWN?
For his talk in October, Dr James Dyke, Programme Director MSc Global Sustainability Solutions, modified the title to "WHY WE SHOULD NOT FEAR THE TECHNOSPHERE" or "HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE POPULATION BOMB" and used the novel analogy of the Dr Strangelove film.
If we are to avoid potentially disastrous climate change we need to rapidly cut carbon emissions now, and by the middle of this century begin a process of carbon removal from the atmosphere. The core assumption in this plan is that humanity is able to make radical changes across many sectors of society simultaneously. James introduced the notion of the “Technosphere” that challenges our ideas of freedom and agency. (The technosphere is humans, their artefacts and links between them. Peter Haff)
In particular, some researchers conclude that humanity may be very limited in its capacity to act and that we are facing unavoidable ruin. He argued that this is not true. We can tame the Technosphere, but it will require change that is perhaps beyond the imagination of our current economic and political system.
READING FOR LIFE SYMPOSIUM
In November twenty-seven Exeter U3A members attended this event organised by Johanna Harris, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, at Reed Hall. Although not specifically organised for Exeter U3A, our members made up the majority of the audience for this very interesting literary day. Many had attended Johanna’s previous Reading for Life conference in 2017 and an anonymous benefactor had generously provided the funding for a second event this year, allowing us to enjoy a day of both intellectual and bodily nourishment! A range of speakers looked at the role of reading and literature in our lives, from childhood, with Daisy Hay looking at Victorian reading books for children, to the end of life, with Tim Harlow stressing the role of literature, creativity and imagination in the development of empathy, so important to medical professionals, particularly those working in palliative care. Helen Taylor talked about the research for her forthcoming book Why Women Read Fiction which investigates contemporary British women’s reading and the role of fiction throughout their lives, while members of our own U3A Book Salon talked about how they explore literature connected with key aspects of what it is to be human and live a life. Coming just a couple of days after Exeter had been awarded UNESCO City of Literature status, we were very lucky to be able to hear from one of the chief architects of Exeter’s bid, Heather Norman-Soderlind who spoke about the support given to literary activities, especially to writers, throughout the south-west and in Exeter in particular. Linking poetry with place, Andrew McRae introduced us to the new website https://www.placesofpoetry.org.uk and explained the national Poly-Olbion Project, originally inspired by a 17th century text. This use of new technology has encouraged and enabled anyone to pin a poem about any place that is significant to them, thus democratising the process of publishing poems. Finally, we heard from Tim Kendall about the life of texts through time, from the author’s drafting process to the changing reception of texts across time, with a specific focus on Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. It was a very enjoyable and interesting event, covering a wide variety of aspects of the part played by reading in our lives. We recognised how important it is for everyone to have access to literature in all its forms and to encourage young and old to engage in reading and writing creatively. Reading for life indeed!
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE....HOW GROUPS INFLUENCE OUR BEHAVIOUR FOR BETTER....OR WORSE
On 15 November 2019, twenty-seven Exeter U3A members attended a talk by Joanne Smith, Associate Professor of Social Psychology, about how our adherence to groups can be a means to effect behaviour change.
Looking at our identity in terms of either our personal identity: our own unique beliefs and values etc – and our social identity: what makes the collection of groups we each belong to, different from someone else's - Joanne considered the widely-held view that 'groups are bad for us. ' We hear about membership of gangs, peer pressure to behave anti-socially, etc. However research has proved that being in groups is good for us. It teaches us to work together in emergencies and supports us throughout life especially at times of transition such as entering university or retiring. It is actually social isolation that is bad for us, often involving excess smoking, poor eating leading to obesity, and high blood pressure.
Joanne explained how social identity is made up of two types of 'norm.' The injunctive 'this is what you should be doing;' and the descriptive 'we're all doing (or not doing) this.' The more closely we identify with a group, the more we are influenced by its norms. We are all constantly subject to the tensions between the two different types of norm. Joanne illustrated this by referencing such behaviours as unhealthy eating, binge drinking, care (or not) for the environment, and tax compliance. She gave many examples of how our perceptions about what we should do very often (but not always) conflict with what other members of our groups actually do. However, if we observe, or are informed, that others in our group are actually performing in a responsible way, we will be more likely to follow suit and in this way positive changes in behaviour can be brought about.
Finally Joanne told us about her membership, as a social psychologist, of the 'Exeter Multi-disciplinary Plastics Research Hub' (ExeMPLaR). A large group of scientists and external stakeholders are examining the problem of plastic pollution. Practical solutions such as clean-up schemes, biodegradable materials, repair rather than renew, etc depend on the public's motivation to comply. Each individual's identity with, and willingness to change or contribute to, behaviour within their set of groups, can help build networks for community actions and lifestyle improvements; and any person's 'groups' can range from small, face-to-face gatherings right up to like-minded national or international organisations that they communicate with via social media etc.
Joanne was an engaging speaker and was generous with her time in answering questions afterwards.
PLASTIC, PLANKTON AND POO, THE IMPACT OF PLASTICS IN OUR OCEANS
Dr Ceri Lewis is a marine biologist who, as part of Exeter’s award-winning plastics research team, has been studying the impacts of marine plastic pollution for the last ten years. In December a dozen U3A members were fortunate enough to attend a riveting presentation about her work.
She started her talk with some startling statistics. 400 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2018, a twentyfold increase compared to fifty years ago. Of this, 37% is for single use, and much of it ends up in the ocean. Only 10% lies on the surface of the water; the rest is invisible below. As well as being unsightly, larger pieces of plastic debris can cause harm by getting entangled in wildlife, or by injuring birds and animals when mistaken for food.
However it is the microscopic plastic debris which is of particular concern, as its small size allows it to be consumed by many minute marine organisms, such as zooplankton. As the zooplankton is itself eaten by larger creatures, the plastic is moved further up the food chain. For example, research has shown that 89% of mussels and 80% of sardines in the South West contain microplastics.
Microplastics have been found on 75% of UK beaches, but it is a global problem. Dr Lewis’s research has taken her all over the world, including on expeditions to measure microplastic pollution in a number of remote locations such as the Azores, the Arctic and the Galapagos.
Although the situation as described by Dr Lewis is alarming, the work done by this pioneering team has greatly added to our understanding of the challenges ahead. While the world searches for long term solutions, I suspect that most of us who attended her eye-opening talk felt inspired to make further efforts to cut down our own plastic use.