Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Vegetarian Week, Day 5

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?


  1. Veganism, Freedom and Conclusions.

Would I go vegan? No.

There is one main reason that I give when I’m asked this question. In my opinion, changing from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one creates far more benefit for self and planet than changing from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one. I eat free range eggs and drink milk if it happens to be in my tea (though I never buy milk). To my mind, going vegan just doesn’t add enough to make it worth considering. Many will disagree with me.

I think the truth is a sad and predictable one about the vegetarian issue. Most people, even if partially convinced, don’t want to go vegetarian because (i) they can’t be bothered, (ii) they don’t care anyway and (iii) they would have to give up something they like. This may seem harsh, but I think it is true in the majority of cases. However, the fact is that human beings are not free to eat whatever they like. As I wrote last year in my post The Freedom Delusion, we are limited by the fact that we live on a single, irreplaceable planet:

“There is no such thing as complete freedom… That is an delusion caused by cultural narcissism, a specific refusal to accept that human beings live in communities; in societies. In fact, we human beings enjoy quite limited freedom. We are restricted by the finite planet that we live on, but also by hundreds of smaller concerns, such as the communities we live in, to which we have many obligations. But to the narcissist such obligations don’t exist. All that matters is personal freedom, to the detriment of community, of culture, of the planet.”

The more the human population grows, the less freedom we shall have. Corporate bodies and vested interests will continue to promote “consumer choice” (an illusion) and Western values of freedom (also an illusion), but the time will come when things have to change. A big reduction is meat-eating is I suspect going to be one of the main changes of the twenty-first century.

I personally found going vegetarian pretty easy. I didn’t miss meat. I didn’t miss bacon. It didn’t seem like much of a change at all. Of course, my own experience is unlike that of many other people, but I do believe that a lot of the inertia around making the change to a vegetarian diet is reactionary hype, the lies of vested interests, and good ol’ capitalist exploitation.

You have the ability to choose to do the planet some good. Make use of that ability. Live local, think global. Go vegetarian and see the difference.



Vegetarian Week, Day 4

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?


  1. The Health Argument

Is vegetarianism really more healthy? I was sceptical for a long time, but the science tells a compelling story.

First of all there are the obvious points – meat and dairy products affect cardiovascular health, they are carcinogens in excess (although of course many things are carcinogens in excess), they affect cholesterol, and their lack of vitamins, antioxidants etc mean they are intrinsically unhealthy if eaten in a poor diet.

But there are more insidious effects. The unethical and cruel use of antibiotics in animal farming has led to newly evolved strains of bacteria which are resistant to known antibiotics. These ‘superbugs’ move from farms into the population by two routes – the meat itself, and the environment in which they exist. So the continued use of antibiotics on farms poses a considerable risk to human health. Antibiotic use promotes the evolution of superbugs, which contaminate meat and poultry, thereby causing disease in people. Superbugs can also leave the farm via workers, wind or liquid runoff, and via wildlife. But even if they don’t immediately cause illness, bacteria are able to exchange genetic immunity with other bacteria wherever they encounter them, via their plasmids (structures that can change independently of chromosomes).

Why then are antibiotics used? The majority of use is in healthy animals, to prevent infection or speed up their growth. This is particularly the case in intensive farming, where animals are kept in confined conditions. In other words, the intensive system itself demands this because it is unnatural and won’t work in any other way. More than half of global antibiotic use is administered to livestock, often to entire herds regardless of the number infected; and in some countries they are given out routinely to promote growth. This has led scientists to conclude that farm animals are a major cause of antibiotic resistance, and this finding has been confirmed by a 2018 Food Standards Agency study.

It’s not intrinsically more healthy to be a vegetarian if the only thing you do is stop eating meat. It’s just as easy to be an unhealthy vegetarian as it is to be an unhealthy omnivore. The benefits arrive when meat and dairy products are replaced with fruit, vegetables, beans, soy etc. Also, vegetarians lose their vitamin B12 intake when they forego meat, which is why products like marmite are vital. (Luckily, I love marmite!)

Another preconception is that meat-eaters are more susceptible to sickness due to tainted meat. In fact they are more susceptible, but not by much. Bacterial infections can easily be passed along by vegetables, eg the current Romaine lettuce problem (E. coli).

Nor is protein an issue. Human beings in fact don’t need much protein to live happily. Most healthy individuals need about 0.8 grams daily per kilogram of body weight. So for instance somebody at nine stones would need only 45 grams a day, all of which can be supplied by plants, whose protein is just as good as that from meat.

To summarise the health benefits of vegetarianism: vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters, in whom cardiovascular disease is more common; vegetarian food is typically low in saturated fat, and usually contains little or no cholesterol; vegetarians have lower blood pressure than omnivores, with some studies showing that adding meat to a vegetarian diet raises blood pressure levels rapidly and significantly; a vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling and preventing diabetes, because this diet can lower blood sugar levels and often reduce or even eliminate the need for medication; studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of the general population’s death rates.

On this last point, why do vegetarian diets help protect against cancer? One main factor is that they are lower in fat and higher in fibre than meat-based diets. But also, plants contain cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals; for example, vegetarians usually consume more of the plant pigments beta-carotene and lycopene, and therefore suffer less incidences of certain types of cancer.

The science is clear. Adopt a vegetarian diet, get some marmite, and enjoy the benefits.


Vegetarian Week, Day 3

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?


  1. The Economic Argument

The economic argument in my opinion is a merger of the land use/population and ethical arguments. Economically it makes more sense to feed the world efficiently via a vegetarian diet than inefficiently using meat also. It’s also more equitable; poor and rich alike benefit, though of course the majority of the rich don’t care about such niceties.

The main aspect of the economic argument that I want to mention here is one too little mentioned in these discussions: scale. We live in nation states within an environment of global corporations, a situation made worse (some would argue) by the internet and globalism. Agriculture is in the main done on vast scales, resulting in the problem of monoculture – unnatural agriculture of one crop across vast areas. The problems brought by the adoption of monoculture are infertility – amended by fertilisers, to the detriment of the environment and of life generally – and pests, amended with life-destroying chemicals. If we did not have this emphasis on large scale agriculture then such attendant problems would be much reduced. And on the small, i.e. human scale, the pest problem is amended by such tactics as companion planting, which has been known about for centuries.

Why do we farm in monocultures? It is largely a matter of perceived economic benefit. Small scale faming, for instance for the local community, does not benefit vast corporations or large nations. It benefits people. The argument that small scale is “uneconomic” only exists if you assume in advance that life must be lived on these vast, inhuman scales: nation, state, world. The constant cry of the green economist is “small is beautiful” – and it is.

This therefore is another thing that the aspiring ethical person can do apart from become vegetarian. If you shop and live locally you greatly benefit both your local community and the planet as whole – the former directly, the latter indirectly. The man who made my last-but-one pair of shoes was a local shoemaker. I buy food – honey for example – at local farm shops to support local small businesses. I buy free range eggs locally when they’re available. None of these small adjustments is either difficult or too costly.

Which brings me to another point. It’s often observed that ‘ethical food’ is more expensive. That isn’t the case. What is true is that mass-made and mass-marketed food is cheaper. But it is cheap because the value gap is made up by unsustainable use of the planet’s resources. We live in an era of deliberately cheap food, where cheapness is masked by not factoring in the immense environmental consequences of its manufacture. When you see cheap food you shouldn’t think of your wallet – you should think, what corners have been cut to make this so inexpensive, and who suffers as a consequence?


Vegetarian Week, Day 2

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?


  1. The Ethical Argument

This is probably the main reason I’ve kept to my vegetarianism over thirty years. Factory farming is an inherently cruel process. It is a truism to state that if abattoirs had glass walls there would be far more vegetarians in the world, but because of the way we now live a huge gap has developed between food production and eating, which makes concealing the cruelty of factory farming much easier. And greedy capitalist corporations did not wait to exploit that situation.

I am guilty of supporting such methods, but only for a while, when I was a teenager. My first ever paying job was at a local egg farm, which had thousands of hens in tiny cages. I remember being shocked when I first experienced it, but I was too naïve then to do anything other than earn some money. These days I eat only free range eggs, which, wherever possible, I buy from local producers. If not I choose free range from the dairy aisle. This is just one of many practical ways of reducing the impact of cruelty in farming.

As a vegetarian another important issue is shoes. Here I’m far from perfect. I’ve never had any success wearing ‘vegetarian shoes’ so I have to go for the leather alternative. One way I’ve found of reducing my impact is to have one pair of shoes hand-made by a local shoemaker then have them repaired every few years. This means I buy far fewer shoes than the average person, reducing the repercussions on the world.

Another small issue for me is musical instruments. My hand drums and percussion instruments often have hides. Wherever possible I try to buy from ethical producers. Recently Carolyn Hillyer made me a shamanic drum, and this is what I read on the Seventh Wave Music website about her drum production:

“All the materials for these drums are very carefully sourced and everything is created using old (and sometimes very ancient) techniques; nothing is machine-made or mass-produced. Special attention is given to the integrity with which the animal skins are gathered and prepared. All skins are by-products of seasonal culling and would otherwise be wasted; no animal is ever killed just to provide skin for drums. Dartmoor Red Deer skins are sourced from a family-run smallholding and deer forest. Dartmoor Wild Horse skins are sourced from the wild pony herds that live on these hills.”

One argument put forward by supporters of factory farming is that animals aren’t sentient and we have a right to eat them for food. This is an argument I have a lot of sympathy for, in the sense of thinking that far too many animals are anthropomorphised. It is not however any excuse for cruel practices. Even if only chimps, gorillas, orang utans, whales and dolphins – i.e. the higher order mammals living in social groups – are sentient, all other highly evolved animals feel pain and deserve compassionate treatment. As, indeed, we ourselves do.

Factory farming and all other barbaric use or ill-treatment of animals is a symptom of human callousness and selfishness. This situation must change if the planet’s lifeforms are to be rescued.


Vegetarian Week, Day 1

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?


  1. The Land Use & Population Argument

Human beings are by nature omnivorous. We evolved over millions of years to eat meat, animal products, vegetables and fruit. But this is a biological situation, which does not impinge upon our ability to choose, an ability which (amongst others) separates us from animal species many of which have no choice about their eating habits. We, therefore, can choose to be vegetarian if we wish, and because we evolved to be omnivores that choice has almost no adverse health consequences. Had we evolved to be carnivores, the situation would be different. Cats for instance cannot survive on a vegetarian diet.

There is a country where this ability to choose is clear. Hindus in India are by religious inclination vegetarians, though there is no strict prohibition as with other religions. Most Hindus are vegetarian, and the reason is religious encouragement to follow ahimsa, which roughly translates as non-violence towards life. The usual Hindu diet doesn’t include eggs, fish or meat. If meat is included however Hindus will often practice jhatka – quick death – preparation because they believe this method minimizes trauma and suffering.

Hindus suffer no major health problems from this diet, showing that vegetarianism is perfectly within human biological requirements as long as a little thought is put into nutrition.

The land use argument and the population argument are pretty much the same thing, with the former a population issue and the latter a land-use-because-of-expanding-population issue. The current human population of the planet is 7.6 billion, with projections for 2100 varying between 11 billion and 15 billion. But already the Earth’s ecosystems are struggling to cope with this vast population, if not actively being destroyed. One of the strongest arguments in favour of a global shift to vegetarianism is that meat production is a very wasteful use of agricultural land. Far more useful nutrient can be produced by a unit area of land if it is producing grain or any other similar vegetable crop rather than producing grazing for animals. The reason such extremely wasteful practices are followed is purely cultural – people want to eat meat regardless of the consequences. This is especially true in countries like America, which have appalling environmental records and a hypertrophied culture of meat-eating.

There are however some environments where vegetables or grain can’t be grown except on the small scale – a topic to which I’ll return later – such as hillsides. The use of such land needs to be recognised in future environmental/agricultural policy.

But even some plants which are linked to vegetarianism such as soya are in fact implicated in global meat-production. Only 6% of the world’s soybeans are used directly as food, mainly in Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Indonesia. Whole soya beans are eaten as a vegetable, or incorporated into tofu, soya milk or soy sauce. 2% of the meal is further processed into flours and protein additives. Soy beans are very high in protein and have been grown for thousands of years in Asia.

But these days most soy is consumed indirectly. The great majority of soy is milled into high protein soymeal, which is fed to the animals that people subsequently eat – a clearly wasteful procedure. Increased meat consumption is in fact the main driver behind the recent expansion of soy use. Around 75% of soy worldwide is used for animal feed – mainly for poultry and pigs.

In a global situation of expanding human population the answer to wasteful food production is a massive cut in keeping animals for food and in using huge tracts of land to sustain them – irreplaceable tracts in the Amazon rainforest for instance. Beef production in South America is directly destroying this particular environment. Raising cattle is in fact the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates. Amazonian Brazil alone is home to 200 million cattle, and is now the largest exporter in the world, supplying about one quarter of the global market. This is all for meat which human beings don’t need to eat, but which they want to eat.

The land use facts are stark and these days hardly debated. Because cows use energy to convert the grass they eat into protein, several times the amount of land is needed to produce an equal amount of beef as, say, poultry – and about 10 times the amount of land than needed to produce grain. This situation needs to change if the planet’s useable environment is to be rescued.


Is Narcissism A Mental Illness?

With the publication of Michael Wolff’s book about Donald Trump being brought forward today, many commentators have again been discussing the issue of Trump’s mental health. A good few of them have either accepted or at least remarked upon the view that Trump suffers from what is usually (including clinically) termed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’ve written a few times on this subject, but today I wanted to add a footnote to my main points.

Donald Trump 1
Donald Trump 2
Narcissism Week

My view of narcissism is more of a social and consciousness-based view than a clinical view. It has been pointed out by a few commentators today that lumping together people who suffer from clinically assessed mental disorders with Donald Trump is unfair to both. They argue that narcissism is not a mental illness, and that mentally ill people should not be mocked by implication, as Trump is mocked. This seems reasonable.

However, to accept the above is to grasp only half the story. Every report I’ve read about NPD and Donald Trump describes sufferers’ vanity, grandiosity, etc, with reference to pride, arrogance, childishness and so on. What these reports miss is the underlying metaphor. An insane person is cognitively separate from the real world. An insane person is like somebody following a path for one: the real world is not checked, indeed – as with schizophrenia, where internal mental sensations are all assumed to come from the outside world – it cannot be checked. Mentally ill people (and this is obviously a generalisation, but bear with me) cannot do what most people take for granted – assess the real world and act accordingly. They rely on their faulty mental model to survive, and alas in so many cases they simply cannot survive.

But this is exactly how narcissistic people work, and the effect can be seen in all intensely narcissistic “leaders” – Thatcher, Napoleon, Hitler, Trump et al.

The underlying metaphor of narcissism is separation from the real world. The narcissist sifts all their experiences through the filter of the self. Nothing is independent out there; everything is determined by themselves and themselves alone. This is the source of the narcissist’s grandiosity, pride and arrogance. They operate as though they are the only real thing, with the ‘outside’ world merely an extension of themselves. Thus the narcissist always reaches out to make the real world as much like their mental model as possible: they are controlling, authoritarian, domineering. They are also plagued by a lack of a sense of realism. (This is why Donald Trump cannot grasp that we in the real world simply have to fact-check his lies to find out what is going on. Fact-checking is not an option for him.)

Donald Trump therefore should be viewed in this light. While there is no evidence for schizophrenia or any other awful mental illness, his narcissism is of a particularly intense variety, and therefore the gap between himself and reality is an abyss. This is of particular worry because he has acquired so much military power.

If narcissism was discussed in the media in this way, we could be fair to clinically ill people and to others caught up in the appalling spectacle unfolding at the White House.

Second Improbable Botany update

A second update from Heather Ring at Wayward Plants – note the call for possible extra copies if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.


Dear Improbable Botany contributors,

I hope this finds you well! Just a couple of updates:


I just wanted to share with you the Kickstarter edition (which includes all of the interviews that Gary conducted) with of the e-book of Improbable Botany, which has now been shared with campaign backers.

Because we’re providing the e-book outside of the Amazon Kindle Store, the MOBI be side-loaded onto a Kindle device over a USB connection or by sending the file via email to a Kindle account and onto your Kindle device.

Print edition

Due to delays at the printers’ end, owing to their adjustments, the print edition of the book will go to manufacture in early 2018. We are waiting for confirmation from the printer as to when the printed copies will ship to our fulfillment partner in the UK. We’ll send out promotional copies of the book as soon as we can. With that in mind…

*Could each of you please send me your address.

*Also, please could you let me know if you – or someone you know – wishes to order additional physical copies. We are doing a very limited run of the print edition, so it’s best to order any additional copies in advance.

Thank you all and have a wonderful holiday season!


Warm wishes,




1899: Blackbury, England.


London In The 19th Century by Jerry White

For me this was more research about Victorian times, but the book is a marvellous collection – written in themed chapters and time-lined from 1800 to 1899 – covering how London changed during the 19th century. It covers everything from architecture to government, charity and religion to riot and prostitution, homeless children to the wealthy in their perfect, posh streets. The section on the working class attitude to charity and religion was particularly eye-opening.

Lots of period detail, a terrific eye when it comes to poverty, class and power, and with a great story to tell – very readable and very enjoyable. You wouldn’t have to be researching for a novel to enjoy this book.


Top 10 favourite albums of the year

Not quite a Top 10 of what was released this year, but…


Björk, ‘Utopia’

Having stopped following Björk over a decade ago after the knotty Medulla and the messy Volta, I found myself intrigued by reports of flutes and the return of choirs to her new album. Utopia is akin to my favourite of her albums, Vespertine, and sounds a bit like the sonic equivalent of Art Nouveau. A gorgeous album.


BNQT, ‘Volume 1’

Realising that ace songwriter Tim Smith was never again going to grace a new Midlake album, I wondered what this new direction would be like. It’s the guys from Midlake with an album created from pairs of songs by well-know writers, including Fran Healy from the amazing Travis and that guy out of The Kaiser Chiefs (a band I never got). Volume 1 is a good album, but I can’t help wondering what Tim Smith is up to…


Saz’iso, ‘The Least We Can Do Is Wave Our Handkerchief’

Bought on the strength of not knowing what Albanian music sounded like and some great reviews. Emotional, beautifully sung (and played) music.


Stornoway, ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’

Randomly bought in Tubeway Records on the strength of its terrific cover and packaging, this turned out to be a wealth of great songs and inspired playing. After hearing this I bought the band’s most recent album, which alas turned out to be their last. Vibrant and tuneful.


The Parson Red Heads, ‘Blurred Harmony’

Most of my friends can’t understand why I love this band (who they deem mild American country-rockers) but my reply is the one I always give when asked this question – the songs, the tunes. This release is up to the band’s usual standard, though with fewer female vocals, which is a shame, as that aspect of the singing was one of the high points of their peerless Yearling.


Jean-Luc Ponty, ‘The Atacama Experience’

Having wondered what the violin maestro had been up to recently (I was a huge fan of his ever-evolving works in the ‘eighties) I was pleased to notice a studio album from 10 years ago that I’d never encountered. With more emphasis on jazz than before, and his first ever (!) acoustic violin piece, it’s a marvellous listen.


Fleet Foxes, ‘Crack-Up’

A long wait after the outstanding Helplessness Blues, this third album proved to be a complex, almost progressive work of many instruments and many fragments. It’s got melody and charm, but perhaps lacks something from losing a song-based structure. Still good though, and way ahead of most of the competition.


North Sea Radio Orchestra, ‘Dronne’

I bought this after falling for Arch Garrison’s wonderful I Will Be A Pilgrim, which is a kind of love-letter to prehistoric southern England. This is an orchestrated work, with a similar focus on melody. More complex and less immediate than the solo work, it’s still terrific.


Renaissance, ‘Live At The BBC’

Having been a fan of this criminally under-rated band for decades, and having seen them return to live work in Britain (Annie has for ages been a resident of America) a couple of years ago, I was very keen to get this classic BBC concert from 1977, which before release had only been viewable on YouTube. It’s superbly put together, with lots of extras. They simply were one of the all-time greats, with a songwriter (Michael Dunford) and a lyricist (Betty Thatcher) almost without equal. Wonderful band, and a total delight to see this in pristine DVD quality.


The Coral, ‘Butterfly House – Acoustic’

I can’t believe it took me 5 years to realise this existed. I love the original album – my favourite of their fantastic output – and this highlights the strengths of the songs, provided by the Skelly brothers. Beautifully played and sung, entirely on acoustic guitars. Unbeatable.