Aidan Ward
Jul 27 · 8 min read
Photo by Ben Moore on Unsplash

I saw a claim the other day that the worst piece of medical advice ever given was this: keep yourself and your children out of the sun and slather yourself in sunblock when you do go out. Indeed, if you send your child to nursery school, the nursery is likely to refuse to allow your child to attend unless they have suncream on at the start of the day. In my mind, this piece of advice vies for awfulness with the advice to eat polyunsaturated oils and, interestingly, they seem to coincide in creating a problem with skin cancer.

At the other end of the age spectrum I took my elderly mother to a dermatology department to have a lump on her shin removed. To my surprise the staff did the minor operation in front of me so I could join in the banter. The staff were fantastic and gave my mother very explicit verbal and written instructions about aftercare, which my mother completely ignored. But that is another story. In the waiting area in a department that of course deals with the effects of people getting this wrong was wall to wall propaganda about protecting yourself from the sun.

So, what is the chance that human beings are better off keeping out of the sun? How can that possibly pass the sniff test? Are we really prepared to ruin our children’s health trying to protect them from the evil environment we live in?

Real time

We tend to think that time is clock time. We have anchored ourselves so firmly to schedules and clock-oriented duties that we cannot imagine another way. When I was climbing in the Cuillins of Skye, one night I camped high up on a rough glaciated slab of rock where I could reach out of the front of the tent for water from the stream flowing from a high tarn. In the morning the cloud was down, which had the effect of blocking any sense of where the sun was, and I didn’t have a watch — it could have been six in the morning or midday. This posed the question of whether we had time for a serious climb before nightfall![1]

When a foetus is developing in the womb there are all sort of critical things that have to happen in the right order. I think I read that when the palate is forming in the mouth there is a six-hour window in which the two sides of the palate need to grow and fuse together. Missing this window results in a cleft palate. How does the body organise its timing?

Our bodies have hundreds or thousands of interlocking mechanisms, many of which depend upon real time. They need ways to synchronise themselves, and the most basic of those is the diurnal cycle. If you wanted to do an experiment to see what happened when those mechanisms didn’t synchronise properly, you would give your experimental subjects an artificial environment lit by artificial light, with minimal exposure to the outdoors.[2]

We know that shift-work has a terrible effect on people’s health. We know about sick buildings that seem to cause illness. We know that people who never get out get sunburned easily. We know about lingering infections in the winter months. The only surprise is that we are surprised that divorcing people forcibly from their natural environment causes them to sicken in myriad ways. We know enough to know this is stupid and what we know is only the tip of the iceberg of damage that we do.

This is another aspect of the metabolic rift we have spoken of many times. We don’t know who we are in the ecosystem. We think and act as though we could be outside a system of impossible complexity which we depend on in ways we cannot even imagine. This is a microcosm of believing we can have control over our destiny. Gregory Bateson despaired of our cravings for control that spoil all our best efforts.

Skin cancer

Skin cancers are one of many things that can go wrong with our skin. They can be treated fairly easily and if not treated they can be fatal. We get sunburned when we get too much sun and sunburn is associated with skin cancers and other forms of damage. But it is obviously not the case that this is a simple linear effect. People who spend their life outdoors rarely get sunburned, when someone who lives in an office can get burned in half an hour. Our bodies are adapted into our environment but can become unadapted when they are divorced from what they need.

The coincidence mentioned at the start is that polyunsaturated oil consumption, that we are advised is the best thing for our health since sliced bread, also appears implicated in skin cancer. It appears that people with a traditional diet high in animal and dairy fat have far fewer problems. Polyunsaturated oils, let’s just call them PUFAs, are found nowhere in nature because they are unstable. They appear toxic to human health in the medium term as they get built into our cell structures.

And briefly, as this is not my subject at all, the evidence is that far more of the active ingredients in suncream get into our bodies that the manufacturers claim. Things that we would never ingest get into our bodies via our skin from the suncream. I would use a sunblock on occasions when I thought I might get burned — walking in high mountains on ice for instance. But its regular use on infants in nurseries? Doesn’t begin to pass the sniff test. Or the blanket “if you get skin cancer it’s your fault for going out in the sun”? Utter nonsense, deeply damaging, health compromising rubbish — about a third of melanomas occur in people who have not had damaging exposure to the sun.

This can be seen as another example of Ivan Illich’s complaint that institutional solutions don’t work and in fact harm the outputs they are trying to generate. By trying to simplify health instructions about avoiding sunburn we end up with nonsense that contributes to ill-health more generally, as well as spoiling a potential source of vast pleasure and enjoyment. We have no governance mechanisms that push back on this sort of nonsense.

Ecological time

In an ecosystem there are many interlocking connections. Most of them are time dependent. As an example, the fructose in fruits is damaging to arteries. The way that arteries repair damage to their structure depends heavily on vitamin D. Vitamin D is made by our bodies when exposed to sunshine. When do these fruits ripen? In the summer when we can make the vitamin D that we need to eat them safely.

What happens next is two-fold of course. Firstly, we buy fruits flown from around the world to our supermarkets and available all year round. Secondly, we neglect to go out in the sun or are advised not to. A good substitute for going out would be eating pork fat from pigs that have been raised in the sun. Having gone looking for such pork fat, it is in vanishingly short supply in the UK, though I found an excellent Spanish version. So can eat blueberries from Morocco with pig fat from Spain.

Or I think in the world of ornithology when blue-tit chicks hatch in the nest the parents must find about 12,000 grubs in the first week to feed them. What coordinates the timing of blue-tit egg hatching and the availability of the right sort of grubs? What happens when the weather is unseasonal?

Of course, the whole point is that this is one tiny mechanism in a web of under-researched connections. We will never know the way these things interlock, partly because as we change our behaviour and have such a disproportionate effect on our ecosystems, new interconnections form as the system learns new ways to balance our ignorance.

The important thing to recognise is that this coordination will never be clock or calendar time. We cannot organise this. We can recognise what happens when to avoid disturbing the connections and we may even be able to boost the ability of existing mechanisms to work well, but we are not and cannot ever be in control here. When we try to control, we lose control. We can think of this in Ivan Illich’s term as above or we can think of it is Ashby’s terms that the amount of control we can have is the ratio of the variety of our interventions with the variety of the system we are trying to control. We don’t always take into account timing issues when considering Ashby but obviously we should.

The relevant timescales vary from things much too long for us to experience, at least tens of thousands of years, to things too short for us to experience. The biological systems evolve to be able to pay attention on the relevant timescale: our ability to pay attention also has evolutionary roots that we ignore: we are good at some things and not at others. I watched a trio of African gentlemen, armed only with arrows, steal food from a fifteen strong pride of lions. They were wired but did a great job.

To return to the sun: it is vanishingly unlikely that we can do without having our myriad body timing mechanisms set properly by the sun, not to mention all the myriad other functions that sun on skin performs for us.

Moonbase

It was not possible to avoid this week all the media attention to the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. The moonshots were and are a triumph of control. We can go to other places, like their purpose being to distract from Kennedy’s disaster in the Bay of Pigs, but let’s stick with the programme itself.

There appears to be an appetite for establishing a moonbase in the next ten years. I want to contrast the extreme sterility of such an exercise with the life processes that actually sustain us. On a moonbase nothing is going to happen unless designed in, barring the impact of space rocks and high energy cosmic rays. On a moon base defence is everything and the environment is indeed hostile. It is not abstractly hostile, it is a place where we, as a life form, did not evolve to cope. Just think about the thought processes of people who think that it might be possible to run away or escape to such a place. That is very much a “don’t go out in the sun”, “we must protect our children” sort of thought world. It is the world that autonomous vehicles will operate in, cleaned up to restrict anything unexpected happening. Life is always and everywhere unexpected: that is its joy.

Huge technical projects, like a moonbase or autonomous vehicles, reliably detract from us understanding our place and how to celebrate it. The whole point of these things is to hold out the possibility of a technical solution, and never mind if the problem they are solution to is not worth solving. The craving for a sense of progress is so strong, even when we are regressing rapidly precisely because of the weight of previous “solutions”. What was the car a solution to actually?

It is rarely articulated, but the question of who we are in terms of the complex interlocking life processes that sustain us, cannot but be central. We have had a large number of related experiments in breaking free from this central question and they are not going well. We simply get a cascade of unsuspected limit and problems that eventually become inescapable. Moonbase or no moonbase. The easiest place I have found to start to think differently is to observe closely the thriving (or not) of other forms of life.

[1] At last year’s Wild Routes getaway, without a known electricity supply, Philip left his phone mostly off, mostly behind in the tent. It’s surprising how freeing a ‘disconnected’ break can be.

[2] Ummm, isn’t that called going to work? It’s also a trope of torture, to artificially vary the periods of sleep/wake/hunger with the express purpose of disorienting the victim.

GentlySerious

Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

Aidan Ward

Written by

GentlySerious

Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

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