Feinstein’s death raises the question: How are vacant Senate seats filled?

There’s an empty seat in the U.S. Senate now that California’s longtime and senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, has died.

And, following the Sept. 22, 2023, federal indictment on bribery and other charges of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, numerous people, including some prominent Democratic lawmakers, have called for Menendez to resign. Even Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who would appoint a replacement for Menendez, has said the senator should step down.

So far, Menendez, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, has refused to resign from the Senate.

The possibility of other U.S. Senate vacancies looms, as well. Following two on-camera episodes during summer 2023 when Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican, appeared temporarily unable to speak or move, some Republicans called for McConnell to resign.

McConnell has not indicated he plans to step aside.

The Conversation asked Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, to explain states’ processes for replacing U.S. senators who choose or are forced to vacate their seats, or who die while in office.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during the opening of the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on September 05, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Who has the power in most states to temporarily or permanently replace US senators?

The basic rules about replacing U.S. senators are spelled out in the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”

In simple terms, in 46 of the 50 states, governors have the power to make temporary appointments to fill U.S. Senate vacancies until either a scheduled or special election determines who will fill the remainder of a vacating senator’s term. That’s the case in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will name Feinstein’s replacement. That person will serve until the next election for that seat, in November 2024.

Permanent replacements require an election. But there are rules about when and how these elections occur and those rules vary by state.

In 37 states, gubernatorial appointees serve the remainder of the term or until the next scheduled general election. In the remaining states with gubernatorial appointments, special elections are required, often with an accelerated timetable. For example, Alabama law requires a special election within 60 days of the gubernatorial appointment, while Massachusetts law calls for an election 145 to 160 days after the appointment.

North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin do not allow governors to make temporary appointments. Those states only fill U.S. Senate vacancies by special election, but laws specify time periods in most states. For example, special elections in Wisconsin must take place between 62 and 77 days of the vacancy unless the opening occurs after July 1 during an even-numbered year. In this case the contest takes place during the November general election. However, there is not a time period specified by state law in Oregon.

How long do those appointments last?

If a person appointed to the seat by the governor then wins a special election or a contest scheduled alongside statewide elections, they will serve the remainder of the vacating senator’s term. Otherwise, if someone else wins the special election, they get to serve out the vacating senator’s term.

What rules are there on how governors make the appointments?

Governors have some restrictions on how they make U.S. Senate appointments. In 10 of the gubernatorial appointment states, U.S. senators must be from the same party as the prior incumbent. Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming have this restriction.

In Utah, the governor is required to select from a list of three candidates submitted by the party of the U.S. senator being replaced.

In the rest of the states, the governor has the power to appoint a successor, regardless of party, including in California.

Do state legislators have a say in the process?

While governors have most of the power, state legislators also have a say in the process. Most notably, legislators establish the appointment procedures and set the general rules about when an election must occur. If they don’t like the process, they have the power to change it.

A recent example occurred in Oklahoma in 2021, which was then one of a very few states where a vacated Senate seat went unfilled until the next election.

Dissatisfied with that process, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law to allow gubernatorial appointments for vacated U.S. Senate seats. Republican legislators were motivated to change their state’s law, in part, because of the 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate and a fear that a vacated seat would give an advantage to Democrats. Läs mer…

Jellyfish: our complex relationship with the oceans’ anti-heroes

Ding! The courier hands me an unassuming brown box with “live animals” plastered on the side. I begin carefully unboxing. The cardboard exterior gives way to a white polystyrene clamshell, cloistering a pearly sphere-shaped, water-filled bag. Lightly pulsing, I spot them: three cannonball jellyfish (Stomolophus meleagris). Each the size of a 50-pence coin.

After months of waiting, my first gelatinous companions had arrived and I was finally ready to begin my research on human connections with jellyfish.

Cannonball jellyfish are an unusual pet choice. Whether stinging beachgoers, clogging power station intake pipes, or outcompeting more popular ocean wildlife, jellyfish are often labelled nuisances.

Despite their poor press, they have a growing community of admirers. Thousands of people drift to aquariums each year to admire jellyfish. Darting around and bumping into one another, tentacles circling or gently pulsing they inspire delight in their guests. The Californian Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Jellyfish: Living Art was the organisation’s most popular and long-running exhibit since opening in 1984.

Jellyfish not only have the ability to captivate us. It may also benefit our health. A study has shown eating cannonball jellyfish, for example, can reduce the effects of arthritis – albeit so far only in a small group of rats.

A biological wonder

Perhaps more importantly, however, we can learn a lot from studying the incredible biology of jellyfish. For example, immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) sidestep the ageing process by reverting to their polyp stage.

Crystal jellies’ (Aequorea victoria) green fluorescent protein (GFP), found in organs within the animal’s bell, allows scientists to study gene expression. Gene expression is the instruction manual DNA follows, for example, to become proteins. This process can be quite complex and difficult to follow. But the GFP lights up under ultraviolet light, which helps scientists map the different processes a cell goes through as it follows DNA instructions.

Jellyfish deserve more of the public’s attention. They are a major player in the marine food web and have complex relationships with other wildlife. For example, cannonball jellyfish have a fascinating relationship with young spider crabs (Libinia spp.) that live inside their bells. This gives the crabs security and research suggests jellyfish hosting crabs grow larger than those without, but it’s not clear why.

A free diver among non-stinging and moon jellyfish of Palau’s Jellyfish Lake.
Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Some scientists say jellyfish are climate-change survivors, which they don’t mean as a compliment. Despite rising temperatures, they sometimes “jellify” the ocean because of their sudden population “blooms”. However, they have their own climate-change-related problems.

For example, temperature increases in Palau’s Jellyfish Lake in the South Pacific have been linked to the disappearance of golden jellyfish (Mastigias papua). Jellyfish blooms are also often followed by crashes in their populations, which are caused by several overlapping factors such as food shortage, predation, parasites, disease, weather and getting stranded on beaches.

Sea curiosities

There are so many reasons humans should make an effort to understand jellyfish better. Research suggests ocean literacy is best cultivated through hands-on experience and personal interactions. But the technology aquariums use to bring jellyfish to the masses limit how involved audiences can be with the animals.

Cannonball jellyfish in a kit aquarium.
Matthew Beach

Although scientists have argued technology can damage people’s relationships with other animals, it can help us reconnect with our environment too.

Because jellyfish are 95% water, they are extremely sensitive to their surroundings. Most kit tanks (often referred to as nano aquariums) hold a small water volume, which makes it difficult to maintain the right conditions such as pH, ammonia levels and temperature.

Bacteria must be introduced into the tank to control jellyfish waste (ammonia) by converting it into nitrite and then nitrate. These bacteria are similar to the oxygen-producing microbes in the ocean that form the basis of all ocean food webs, and help maintain the ocean cycle. The nitrate is removed by replacing small amounts of aquarium water with purified salt water.

As I discovered, if these conditions are not maintained, the jellyfish can suffer from bell holes (small circular tears in jellyfishes’ bells) and eversion (when the outer portion of the bell inverts). When aquarium jellyfish suffer eversion, high water temperature is often the culprit. Learning how to care for jellyfish in these kits is learning about their complex relationships to our oceans.

The closer we feel to our environment, the more likely we are to fight to protect it. So next time you visit the seaside or your local aquarium, try to slow down, absorb the experience and see if you can learn something new about jellyfish and wider ocean wildlife. Läs mer…

Every science lab should have an artist on the team – here’s why

I’ve been conducting scientific research with experts who specialise in advanced microscopy at Nottingham University for more than ten years. But I’m not a scientist – I’m an artist and lecturer in illustration.

Despite their importance in education and society, science and art are often seen as distinct fields, which, in my opinion, stifles beneficial connections. I want to foster these connections by helping to make sense of scientists’ work for a wider audience through my own work as an artist. I have seen the enormous potential that exists when scientists and artists work together.

Like advanced imaging specialists, I am fascinated by light, colour, lasers, technology and science. When I discovered the Wellcome Trust’s Sci-Art scheme in 1998, its ethos – to foster connections that produce art directly inspired by science – encouraged me to seek out life scientists to collaborate with, because the methods we employ to create images are connected.

Advanced imaging specialists and myself both have knowledge of light, optics and computer visualisation methods, while I am fascinated by how I can use scientific image data innovatively. There has always been a lack of understanding between art and science in terms of approaches to imaging and its potential. I wanted to discover if and how an artist-researcher could contribute to new methods and approaches through collaboration.

My aim was to dismantle silo mentalities so that artists can work with scientists to create new representations, insights and behavioural change. I wanted to use experimentation and play – elements that helped me negotiate and interpret our collaboration in new ways by extending artistic and scientific methods of visualisation. This led to new and different representations, technological advancements and better intellectual and visualisation skills.

I advanced three methods of production: an introspective, digital drawing method using limited tools; data montages where data and documentary footage are explored; and experimental moving image work, integrating documentary film footage and sound.

Getting in on the science

Advanced microscopy is used to observe cells that the naked eye cannot see, while being as gentle as possible on the object being examined. My work focuses on the imaging potential of the biomedical data revealed through advanced microscopy. This artistic expression of scientists’ data can provide them with tools for showing their work in a different way to a different audience.

For example, I work with scientists while they conduct image experiments, to discover how and why they generate image data of cell behaviour. In a nutshell, my research seeks to break down barriers and boost collaboration so that artists and scientists can see the other’s work from a different perspective.

However, these scientists devote their lives to medical research and have little opportunity to interact with colleagues from other disciplines. But my presence as an artist helps to bridge this gap and supply fresh insights that alter the way I, and everyone around me, see scientific images.

My observations spark new depictions of cells, biological structures and skin, (see images above and below). For example, I use digital sketching to map the structural complexity of biological structures such as radiolaria – minuscule single-cell marine creatures with a delicate mineral skeleton made of silica (shown in the opening image).

Inspired by watching these scientists at work I create data montages, seeing unique patterns, wonderful colours and movement through layers of skin at this detailed magnified size (as seen below). I then display my artwork along with advanced microscopy photographs at scientific conferences to compare results and highlight the aesthetic potential of scientific data from an artist’s perspective.

Compilation of three dimensional topologies, projections and photographs from research on skin.
Jo Berry, Author provided (no reuse)

I’ve worked with four science labs since 2010, including the Centre of Membrane Proteins and Receptors at Nottingham University; the Imaging and Analysis Centre at the Natural History Museum, London; the Centre for Cellular Imaging in Gothenburg; and Biofilms Research Centre for Bio-interfaces in Malmo, Sweden.

In these lab relationships I have helped scientists at different stages of their careers communicate their discoveries more accessibly through my artistic interpretations. I have created graphic artwork and experimental films that showcase the dynamic nature of imaging technology. It has allowed me to portray the unrealised visual potential to help illuminate complex processes.

At the Centre for Cellular Imaging, I collaborated with specialists who work at the intersection of life and material sciences on an international study to better understand how medicine is absorbed and distributed via the skin.

As researchers on the same project, we discovered numerous similarities, such as our interest in technology and our fascination with microscopic imagery. However, we approached science from a completely different angle. While scientists were busy documenting their results, I was captivated by the real-time visual depictions on the computer screen.

Benefits for everyone

Over a decade of merging science and art, I’ve discovered three major advantages to such collaborations.

1. The variety of collaborations increased my appreciation for technical advances in scientific visualisation.

2. They inspire both scientists and artists to think creatively.

3. They contribute to making science more accessible to the general public.

Human stem cells derived from cardiomyocytes – the cells responsible for the contraction of the heart.
Jo Berry, Author provided (no reuse)

Alice Twemlow, lecturer in design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague has stressed the educational importance of this research, because it fosters new kinds of learning via art, science and technology.

My work has even made it into popular culture, appearing in BBC4’s The Beauty of Anatomy. And London’s Coningsby Gallery recently hosted a public show of my graphic artwork. I believe this helps to make science appear less remote and more approachable for the general public.

In a world where innovation thrives at the intersection of disciplines, every science lab should welcome the presence of an artist. Together, they can explore the enormous potential of arts-science collaboration to spark creativity, deliver ground-breaking discoveries and make that knowledge accessible to a wider audience. Läs mer…

Lost in the coffee aisle? Navigating the complex buzzwords behind an ’ethical’ bag of beans is easier said than done

You’re shopping for a bag of coffee beans at the grocery store. After reading about the effects of climate change and how little farmers make – typically $0.40 per cup – you figure it might be time to change your usual beans and buy something more ethical. Perusing the shelves in the coffee aisle, though, you see too many choices.

First up is the red tub of Folgers “100% Colombian,” a kitchen staple – “lively with a roasted and rich finish.” On the side of the tub, you see the icon of Juan Valdez with his donkey, Conchita – a fictional mascot representing the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation.

Next might be Starbucks “Single-Origin Colombia.” One side of the green bag tells “the story” of the beans, describing “treacherous dirt roads” to “6,500 feet of elevation” that are “worth the journey every time.” The other shows a QR code and promises Starbucks is “Committed to 100% Ethical Coffee Sourcing in partnership with Conservation International.”

Then again, you’ve heard that a “better” choice would be to buy from local cafes. The bag from your local roaster introduces you to La Familia Vieira of Huila, Colombia, who have worked as coffee farmers for four generations at 1,600 meters above sea level – about a mile. But then there’s a flood of unfamiliar lingo: the 88-point anerobic-processed coffee was sourced directly from an importer who has a six-year relationship with the family, paid $3.70 per pound at farmgate, and $6.10 per pound FOB at a time when the C-market price was $1.60 per pound.

Coffee farmer Julian Pinilla uses a coffee grinder during an interview with AFP in Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
Juan Restrepo/AFP via Getty Images

If you’re about ready to toss in the towel, you’re hardly alone. Consumers are often asked to make more responsible choices. Yet when it comes to commodity goods like coffee, the complex production chain can turn an uncomplicated habit into a complicated decision.

As a coffee enthusiast and marketing professor who researches marketplace justice, I’ve long been fascinated with how ethics and coffee consumption are intertwined. Before COVID-19, my family adopted a cat and named him Yukro, after a coffee-producing community in Ethiopia. While we were quarantining at home, I ordered Yukro-originating coffee from as many roasters as I could find to try to understand how consumers were supposed to make an informed choice.

Paradoxically, the more information I gleaned, the less I knew how to make a responsible decision. Indeed, prior research has indicated that information overload increases the paradox of choice; this is no different when factoring in ethical information. Additionally, as with a lot of consumer-facing information, it can be difficult to tell what information is relevant or credible.

Marketers attempt to simplify this overload by using buzzwords that sound good but may not get across much nuance. However, you might consider some of these terms when trying to decide between “100% Colombian” and the Vieira family.

Fair trade

As a benchmark, the coffee industry typically uses the “C-price”: the traded price on the New York Intercontinental Exchange for a pound of coffee ready for export. “Fair trade” implies the coffee is fairly traded, often with the goal of paying farmers minimum prices – and fixed premiums – above the C-price.

There are a few different fair trade certifications, such as Fairtrade America or Fair Trade Certified. Each of these has its own, voluntary certification standards linked with the associated organization. Yet obtaining certification can come at significant additional cost for farms or importers.

Farmers work on the coffee seed harvest in the Nandi province of Tindiret, Kenya.
Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In contrast, some importers, or even roasters, have established relationships with specific farms, rather than buying beans at auction on the open market. These relationships potentially allow the importers to work directly with farmers over multi-year periods to improve the coffee quality and conditions. Longer-term commitment can provide farmers more certainty in times when the C-price is below their cost of production.

Yet these arrangements can be just as volatile for farmers if the importers they’ve committed to cannot find roasters interested in buying their beans – beans they could have sold at auction themselves.

100% arabica

There are several species of coffee, but approximately 70% of the world’s production comes from the arabica species, which grows well at higher altitudes. Like with wine, there are several varieties of arabica, and they tend to be a bit sweeter than other species – making arabica the ideal species for satisfying consumers.

In other words, a label like “100% arabica” is meant to signal deliciousness and prestige – though it’s about as descriptive as calling a bottle of pinot noir “100% red.”

When it comes to the environment, though, arabica isn’t necessarily a win. Many arabica varieties are susceptible to climate change-related conditions such as coffee rust – a common fungus that spreads easily and can devastate farms – or drought.

Other coffee species such as robusta or the less common eugenioides are more climate-change resistant, reducing costs of production for farmers, and are cheaper on commodity markets. However, they have a bit of a different taste profile than what folks are normally used to, which could mean lower earnings for farmers who make the switch, but could also provide new opportunities in areas where coffee was not previously farmed or to new markets of consumers’ tastes.


If someone labeled a peach as “American,” a consumer would rightly wonder where exactly it came from. Similarly, “single-origin” is a very broad description that could mean the coffee came from “Africa” or “Ethiopia” or “Jimma Zone” – even the zone’s specific town of “Agaro.” “Single-estate” at least gives slightly more farm-level information, though even this information may be tough to come by.

Consumers have tended to want their coffee’s journey from seed to cup to be traceable and transparent, which implies that everyone along the production chain is committed to equity – and “single-origin” appears to provide those qualities.

Egyptian farmer Ahmad al-Hijawi’s Yemeni coffee beans are cultivated in the shade of mango trees.
Mohamed Elshahed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As a result, some coffee marketers invest quite a bit in being able to craft a narrative that emotionally resonates with consumers and makes them feel “connected” to the farm. Others have developed blockchain solutions where each step along the coffee’s journey, from bean to retail, is documented in a database that consumers can look at. Since blockchain data are immutable, the information a consumer gets from scanning a QR code on a label of a coffee bag should provide a clear chain of provenance.


Shade-grown labels indicate that farms have adopted a more environmentally sustainable method, using biomatter like dead leaves as natural fertilizer for the coffee shrubs growing beneath a canopy of trees. Unlike other methods, shade-grown coffee doesn’t increase deforestation, and it protects habitats for animals like migratory birds – which is why the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, which has developed its own coffee certification program, calls it “bird-friendly.”

But as with fair trade, there are costs associated with certification, and those costs are often passed on to consumers. Farmers or importers are left justifying the cost and wondering if the specialized label can attract a large enough market to validate their decision to certify. That said, many farmers who have the ability will do shade-grown regardless, since it’s a better farming practice and saves some costs on fertilizer.

In the end, all this information – or lack thereof – is a tool for consumers to use when making their coffee choices. Like any tool, sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes not. These labels might not make your decision any easier, and might drive you right back to your “usual” bag of beans – but at least your choice can be more nuanced. Läs mer…

Self-driving buses that go wherever you want? How the UK is trying to revolutionise public transport

Futurology is littered with predictions that failed to materialise, not least in the field of transport technology. In Edwardian times, when public transport was largely powered by horse or steam, a number of new concepts emerged which were hailed as the “future of public transport”.

In 1910, the Brennan Monorail was a gyroscopically stabilised, diesel-powered monorail train that ran on a circular test track at the White City in London. One of the early passengers on this 50-person prototype was then-home secretary Winston Churchill, who insisted on driving the train himself. The new technology reportedly “proved as interesting to the statesman as a new toy would to a child” – and Churchill is said to have told its Irish-Australian creator Louis Brennan: “Sir, your invention promises to revolutionise the railway systems of the world.”

Buoyed by such designs, engineering writers of the time looked forward to a future of us all whizzing around the country on new forms of hi-tech transport. But there were concerns too: in one popular 1912 encyclopaedia, an artist’s impression of a monorail train crossing a gorge via an unfeasibly skimpy bridge was accompanied by the warning:

When [note, not ‘if’] the monorail comes into general use, the feeling of insecurity – quite unnecessary but nevertheless inevitable – will be felt the strongest where there are single-rail bridges.

In fact, despite Churchill’s support, the Brennan Monorail never got further than the test track. In both its target markets – cheaply built branch lines and the military – a far simpler technology easily outdid it on grounds of practicality, flexibility and cost: the motorised bus and truck.

Chancellor David Lloyd George and home secretary Winston Churchill watch a demonstration of the Brennan Monorail in 1910.

More than a century on, we are in a new era of transport technology disruption. In recent years, across the world, we have seen the emergence of the flying taxi and hyperloop train prototypes, hydrogen highways and trackless trams, as well as countless driverless car, taxi and bus pilots. At the same time, our most popular forms of public transport – the train and bus – are creaking under the strain of government funding cuts, union disputes and technological upheaval.

Is this the dawning of a much-needed revolution in mass transit, led by a new breed of clean-powered, demand-responsive, driverless vehicles? Or for all the people young and old, rural and urban-based, who rely on public transport for their everyday needs, will these grand designs turn out to be little more than modern versions of the Brennan Monorail flop?

Slow death of the bus

A key factor influencing today’s public transport strategies is the commitment to limit planetary warming to 1.5℃ by reaching net zero emissions – a strategy the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, recently appeared to row back on. One global projection suggests public transport use in cities needs to double by 2030 to meet these targets.

But there are, of course, many other benefits of good public transport: from improving air quality and social inclusion to encouraging regional economic development (aka levelling up) and widening workforce participation.

In the UK, trains continue to hog the headlines, amid the rumoured cancellation of the northern section of the HS2 route, the general lack of rail investment in the north, ongoing industrial action over pay and staffing levels – and even the agonising 11-hour ordeal endured by rail passengers when their London to Edinburgh service was cancelled mid-route. Meanwhile, the long, slow collapse of the UK’s local bus services has gone largely unnoticed – other than by the people who have lost this critical mode of travel.

Changes in bus use in English counties.
Department for Transport/BBC

In March 2023, the House of Commons Transport Committee reported that England’s long-term decline in bus use outside London – a 15% drop between 2010-11 and 2018-19 – had deteriorated by a further 15% despite the government’s temporary £2 cap on fares (rising to £2.50 in November 2023). The situation is similar in Scotland, where bus use has declined 22% since 2007-08.

In parallel with this decline, services and routes have been cut. Government bus grants have become increasingly selective, resulting in entire bus networks vanishing in a number of areas, and being left “hanging by a thread” in others.

This isn’t just in smaller towns and rural areas. Many larger settlements have also been affected, such as Stoke-on-Trent, where bus services have reduced by half since 2012-14. In June 2023, when further cuts were announced, local media reported the impact on users such as this unhappy traveller:

I use the bus to get to work and back, and losing the service would mean reducing my hours. It’s getting us down. My husband’s an Avon rep, so he’s on and off the buses all the time. And the 8am bus I get is packed.

There are exceptions to this downward spiral. Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, recently heralded the launch of the new, “re-regulated” Bee network of buses across Greater Manchester as “symbolic of a need to get more public control and ownership of critical services”. Praising this initiative, the Guardian wrote in its leader column:

The cutting of bus services on purely commercial grounds has led to greater social and economic isolation, restricting opportunities for the elderly and those without other means of getting around. Publicly regulated buses will at last allow greater accountability in relation to a service that, for many passengers, is fundamental to their daily quality of life.

But this is not the direction of travel in most parts of the country, where privatised, disconnected bus services remain dominant. A key structural reason for the decline in local bus use is that people’s patterns of travel have become much more dispersed and complex – behaviour that is hard to accommodate with a conventional, fixed-route public transport system such as the bus.

This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.

In fact, the strongest recent growth in local travel – seemingly exacerbated by the pandemic – has not been along major corridors to city centres, but in suburban and rural areas. Not only are people working in different ways but our economy is increasingly service and consumer-focused, and travel patterns have altered significantly as a result. The major areas of travel growth are now for social and leisure-related purposes – and again, traditional fixed-route bus services struggle to accommodate these types of trip, while it is so much easier to simply use a car.

The advent of certain digital technologies – in particular, cashless ticketing and journey planning apps – may make using public transport more desirable for those comfortable with such technology. But they don’t change the core service. A smart app is just a high-tech insult if buses don’t run when and where you want to go.

An early prototype of the Heathrow Pods system being tested in January 2008.
JLatWiki at English Wikipedia

The emergence of trackless trams

In 2011, a small but radical new service was established to connect passengers using Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 with their parked cars. These Heathrow Pods consisted of driverless, four-seater vehicles available on demand, taking passengers straight to their destination along special elevated, segregated roadways. Users were promised they would “never have to wait more than 30 seconds for one to become available”.

While admittedly covering a very limited area, this radical alternative to the traditional fixed-route, scheduled model of public transport continues to garner praise since reopening after a hiatus during the pandemic. In the wake of the Heathrow Pods’ introduction, it had been expected that similar tracked, autonomous transport systems would develop elsewhere – but that hasn’t come about.

Rather, they could be seen as a small-vehicle precursor to the trackless tram systems that have subsequently emerged around the world. A combination of GPS and Lidar (light detection and ranging) guidance technologies are enabling battery-powered electric vehicles to fulfil the function of trams without the need for disruptive and costly track and overhead line infrastructure – making high-quality tram-style services viable beyond a handful of “global elite” cities.

The world’s first autonomous rapid transit (ART) line – or trackless tram – in the Chinese city of Zhuzhou, October 2017.
Imaginechina Ltd/Alamy

The Chinese pioneered this form of public transport with the automated rapid transit (ART) vehicles, which first entered service in the eastern city of Zhuzhou in 2018, then rapidly spread to other Chinese cities. Initially manually driven, these trackless trams are now moving to autonomous operation. In Zhuzhou, a four-carriage model was introduced in 2021 which can carry 320 passengers at a maximum speed of just over 40mph, running on batteries charged at each station stop.

And the concept is spreading beyond China: in 2022, a trial was announced for a five-mile route in the city of Stirling, Western Australia. In the UK, however, there is less inclination to depend on Chinese-controlled technology. And of course, trams – trackless or otherwise – don’t solve the issue of people wanting services that take them beyond a fixed route.

Meeting the modern, disparate mobility needs of an entire population doesn’t just require new types of vehicle or clever booking apps. We need a new vision of what public transport could be – and in different corners of the UK, there are places starting to offer this.

The UK’s self-driving public transport prototypes

Scotland’s CAVForth self-driving bus service, which came into public service in May 2023, is described on its website as “the world’s most ambitious and complex autonomous bus system”. Serving a 14-mile route that crosses the Forth Road Bridge on the outskirts of Edinburgh, the buses drive themselves along ordinary roads, obey traffic lights, and mix with pedestrians and cyclists. The main reaction of passengers seems to be that they are unaware the buses are not manually driven, as one early user wrote in CNet:

Though the bus is fully autonomous, you’d be forgiven for not really recognising it as such. You’ll find a regular steering wheel upfront, and behind it, a driver who’ll no doubt look as though they’re operating the vehicle as usual. UK law dictates that even fully autonomous vehicles must still have an ‘operator’ present who can take manual control, should the need arise.

Stagecoach video showing passengers on board the CAVForth self-driving bus service.

Using a combination of three sets of Lidar technology and a “suite of cameras and radar”, the autonomous system can currently manage 90% of the route, according to ITPro, with the human driver “handling the exit from the depot and a few other locations”. The route is projected to expand further north, to the city of Dunfermline, in 2024.

Because the driver is a big part of bus running costs, if buses can eventually be autonomous then the challenging costs of providing late-night services or thinly used routes will be reduced – meaning that services could be improved. But the IT-led potential extends much further than a driverless bus.

In south-east England, Mi-Link – billed as “the UK’s first fully electric autonomous bus service” – is a move towards something more radical. As well as being electric-powered, this self-driving bus service – which launched in January 2023 and now runs on public roads to Didcot Parkway railway station in south Oxfordshire – is linked to a real-time journey planning app which helps travellers plan their journey whether they are walking, cycling or taking the bus to the Milton Park trading estate. It keeps users updated according to their individual travel preferences through the likes of WhatsApp and Messenger.

First Bus video launching the Mi-Link self-driving electric bus service in Oxfordshire.

The integration of autonomous technology with a smart journey planning system feels critical if public transport is to prosper by attracting traditional car users. App-linked self-driving taxi fleets may well prove another key part of this future, and there are already entirely driverless public taxi fleets such as Waymo and Cruise in San Francisco, and the Robotaxi in China. On the whole, these appear to be technically successful, if highly subsidised and dependent on powerful 5G networks to operate. However, their emergence has been met with resistance both about perceived lack of safety and luddite-esque fears of potential job losses.

But for one of the best clues to what local public transport could look like in the future, we should again look closer to home, to a UK city that has long been renowned – and sometimes mocked – for its futuristic visions.

The future according to Milton Keynes

After its foundation in 1967, the ambitious new town of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire soon began attracting an international reputation for anticipating future social, economic and cultural trends. Along the way, it was also derided as a city of roundabouts and concrete cows, with one architecture critic calling it “the doomed apotheosis of the fossil-fuel society”.

Today, its designers’ desire to accommodate extremely high levels of car use can be viewed as an environmentally irresponsible planning stance. But despite its detractors, Milton Keynes has proved extremely successful both economically and socially, and today has a growing reputation for being at the forefront of a more climate-friendly era of transport innovation.

Milton Keynes has replaced its traditional bus services with ‘demand-responsive’ MK Connect.
Homer Sykes/Alamy

Recently, its planners have grappled with the need for a new type of public transport – something that is “demand responsive” in the way of a taxi, but without taxi-level fares.

Demand-responsive transport (DRT) services have been attempted by public authorities over the years – but largely without success. A global assessment in 2021 concluded that when a new DRT service is set up, revenue from the low number of passengers could not cover the running costs, particularly those of the driver and back-office systems.

One early example was the Corlink DRT service in north Cornwall, which launched in 2002 to link rural communities with towns. The subsidy cost of over £28 per passenger trip was financially unsustainable and when special government support for the project ended, the service was withdrawn.

The Taxibus service to Bicester rail station, which launched around the same time, ran flexible routes off-peak and, by late 2003, was carrying 50,000 passengers a year. But even then, the service was eventually withdrawn as commercially unviable.

Twenty years on, however, Milton Keynes has addressed the cost problem, at least, with its DRT service, MK Connect. Facing the familiar situation of decreased funding to support the rising cost of uneconomic bus services, the city council opted not to implement cuts. Instead, it replaced its subsidised routes with a new demand-responsive service in partnership with the international tech company Via Transportation. Introduced in 2021, MK Connect still requires a subsidy, but half that of the conventional bus services it replaced.

The service is booked by users like an Uber taxi, logging their pick-up and drop-off addresses through a smartphone app, web portal or by phoning the contact centre. The app directs users to a nearby pick-up point, and they are dropped near their destination. Other passengers may be picked up and dropped off along the way.

The vehicles are small: as well as the fleet of eight-seater vans (many of which are electric), some cars are used. They generally arrive within 30 minutes of a booking being made, though the wait can be longer at busy times and in more rural areas. Fares are similar to that of traditional buses (payment is cashless), and the service covers the whole Milton Keynes city area – with far better coverage and operating times than the limited bus routes the service replaced.

An important feature is that the app will not allow someone to book on MK Connect if they could use a commercial bus route for their trip instead. In these cases, travellers are informed where to catch the conventional bus and when it will arrive. This ensures that MK Connect does not adversely affect existing viable bus routes, while improving the city’s public transport as a whole. Equally, if people cannot use existing buses due to a disability or other reason, they can register this and will always be accommodated on MK Connect.

The service is widely used, with some 40,000 trips being made each month (almost half a million each year) – a level of use that means its finances stack up. MK Connect has enabled trips to be made that previously were difficult or impossible using conventional buses, including for a man with sight loss who is the subject of a widely shared video.

One of us – Stephen – has used MK Connect on a number of occasions, and offers this mixed review of his experiences of the service:

I booked a trip to get to the barbers for a haircut. You can only book an hour or so beforehand, but I found a service that would get me there on time, which picked me up from the end of our road (the app guided me to the exact pick-up point). One other person joined us on the way and another was dropped off en route, but I got to my drop-off point in time for a three-minute walk across to the barbers. Coming back was less smooth, though. Initially, I was refused a booking – no vehicles were available. I waited a few minutes and tried again. This time I got a vehicle, after a 50-minute wait …

This mixed experience reflects the feedback that has been given in various passenger surveys. MK Connect is designed to serve modern, dispersed patterns of travel demands but is by no means perfect – some people find it harder to use than the buses it replaced, and there are problems with the vehicles being full at busy times, meaning prospective passengers are refused a booking or not accommodated for a long time. The booking system is also not yet reliable enough when a person has to get to an appointment or college lecture on time, say, or to connect with a specific train.

However, generally speaking, regular users appear to be getting used to the new system and its quirks. The real benefit to them, of course, is that this DRT service allows them to make trips that would be much more difficult, or impossible, using traditional route buses.

Another recently launched DRT, HertsLynx, aims to serve the rural fringes of Hertfordshire using four electric-powered, 16-seater minibuses in an operating zone centred around the market town of Buntingford and surrounding villages. Passengers are able to travel between 250 virtual bus stops, as well as nearby towns including Stevenage, Hitchin, Letchworth and Baldock – although travel to these towns is limited to fixed points (hospitals, train and bus stations, and high streets).

HertsLynx now makes 2,600 passenger trips a month and, like MK Connect, booking is by app, online or phone. With only four buses, it has hit a similar issue to MK Connect of being unable to take some trip requests when vehicles are fully in use, as noted in this recent review.

These two prototype services suggest a good model is emerging for local public transport, but that it needs refining. DRT services can best serve more dispersed trips, while conventional buses work well when a regular, predictable arrival time is needed and in situations of high demand. A good mix of the two is what is needed and Milton Keynes and HertsLynx, while heading that way, haven’t yet achieved it. Adding a in a Manchester-style regulation structure might well do that.

The future of local public transport?

As the Brennan Monorail flop illustrated more than a century ago, predicting the future is a dangerous thing. But there is clearly potential to rethink public transport systems all over the world, in a way that makes a real difference to the planet and quality of daily life – by improving mobility while reducing costs, air pollution and congestion levels.

This revolution is being driven by a range of organisations, spanning powerful technology companies and IT startups as well as the existing public transport industry and both national and local policymakers. Central to a more diversified public transport future is easily accessed information and payment systems that allow users to customise different services for their own travel needs. Personalised apps on mobile devices to book and pay for public transport services will become increasingly important.

If you combine digital planning and payment systems, autonomous driving and a DRT service redesign, then a radically better form of public transport starts to emerge. Without the need for a driver, fixed-route buses could be smaller but run more frequently. Combined with DRT services to cover more dispersed trips, the potentially transformative, “small vehicle-small infrastructure” vision of public transport systems comes into place.

Read more:
Driverless public transport will change our approach to city planning – and living

The result could be that, rather than people needing to adjust their behaviour to the schedules and routes of a bus or metro, they can travel directly, whenever they want, on services operating 24/7 – overcoming the poor quality of infrequent evening, night and Sunday public transport services experienced today.

All that said, the future may still not end up quite as automated as some technologists predict. Driverless vehicles overseen by control centres cost an awful lot to set up and run, and this may limit the use of driverless bus and taxi systems to where use is high enough to make the sums add up – in other words, major cities. For a good while yet, public transport vehicles in most medium-sized UK towns, as well as rural areas, are likely to remain manually driven.

Rather than trying to jump straight to an IT-driverless ideal, a phased introduction of upgradable, adaptable system designs makes more sense. In this way, the spectre of the Brennan Monorail should remain a useful reminder that not all technological advances will change our world for the better, and there is a real danger that second-best fixes could impede potentially transformative change. This is a journey that has only just started – and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

For you: more from our Insights series:

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Michael Gambon: an unshowy actor of enormous range and charm

Sir Michael Gambon, who died on September 28 at the age of 82, was a hugely versatile actor who enjoyed numerous and varied roles in film and television throughout the course of his long career.

Gambon was also a titan of the theatre. His major theatrical roles include Shakespeare’s Othello, King Lear and Falstaff, and Brecht’s Galileo, together with starring roles in works by the finest contemporary playwrights of his era: Beckett, Pinter, Churchill, Hare, Gray and Ayckbourn.

But the reality of theatre is that aside from newspaper cuttings of rave reviews and the fading memories of theatre-goers, very little record of these performances can actually survive for posterity. It is through film and television most audiences know Gambon and these are the media through which his image and presence will continue to circulate far into the future.

As Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise.
United Archives GmbH / Alamy

The acclaimed Singing Detective

Despite recent media obit headlines, Gambon was not just about Dumbledore and Harry Potter. Indeed it was another Potter – Dennis, not Harry – through which Gambon first became a household name. In 1986, he starred as lead character Philip Marlow in the TV playwright’s most successful and seminal work for BBC TV, The Singing Detective.

Covered in abrasive lesions and scales from a condition that also afflicted Potter in real life, Gambon’s wracked and hospitalised visage became an iconic part of 1980s British TV culture. The grotesque and tormented character in his hospital bed imagined doctors and nurses dancing all around him as they mimed to old 1940s big-band tunes.

But watch Gambon more carefully over the course of the six episodes and we get a masterclass in bravura performance. The serial could not have worked without Gambon at its core, making the audience believe in the character’s emotional journey from extreme despair and misanthropy, to more optimistic self-acceptance and a sense of equanimity at its close.

The serial’s director, Jon Amiel, insisted on Gambon for the role, knowing the actor would have the ability to embody not just Marlow’s rage but also, crucially, his vulnerability. This was vital for the audience to go on an emotional journey with the character, learning to peer behind all the anger, railing and self-loathing to the root causes that lay beneath.

And this is exactly we see. Amid all the flashbacks, fantasy sequences and musical numbers, it is Gambon to which the camera always returns as his eyes flash or his face tenses and another unwanted fantasy or forbidden memory begins to surface. It was a towering performance which would go on to win him the Bafta for best actor in 1987.

Swashbucklers, gangsters, aristos

The success of The Singing Detective divides Gambon’s TV and film career. Before that, he had acted in a range of plays for television in the heyday of the single play era when drama slots such as Play for Today (BBC 1970-84), ITV Playhouse (1967-83) and Play of the Month (BBC 1965-83) peppered the TV schedules.

But he also tried series acting, including an early part as a Scottish swashbuckler in 26 episodes of the 16th-century period drama, The Borderers, made for BBC Scotland between 1968 and 1970.

In 1985, Gambon took the title role in the three-part BBC2 serial Oscar, about the life of Oscar Wilde. This gained him critical praise and TV industry attention ahead of being cast in The Singing Detective. Soon Gambon’s screen acting career was flourishing as more television and cinema opportunities came his way.

Interestingly, there is often a division between his “rage” and “vulnerability” parts. In the former camp, there are Gambon’s coruscating turns as various species of gangster, beginning perhaps most memorably with his role as Albert Spica in director Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).

Gambon as Lear.
Donald Cooper / Alamy

Here, we see extreme levels of rage and misanthropy as Gambon channels the utter despicability lying right at the heart of his character Spica’s name. By the end of the film, Spica embodies all the horrors of conspicuous consumption Greenaway clearly loathed about the 1980s.

If not quite as vivid in their depictions of pure evil, other memorable villain roles would follow, including a warmongering general in Toys (1992) and ruthless Irish rancher in the western Open Range (2003) – both made for Hollywood – as well as wealthy crimelord Eddie Temple in the hit British crime film Layer Cake (2004).

Gambon with his best-actor Bafta with Bob Hoskins in 1987.
PA / Alamy

But in amongst the variety of gangsters and villains, not to mention haughty aristocrats in British period films such as Gosford Park (2002) and The King’s Speech (2010), we also see the more vulnerable side of Gambon’s characters, sometimes running parallel to the gruff exterior.

Older wiser characters

What pleased Gambon so much about being given the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise (taking over from fellow Irish actor Richard Harris who died in 2002), was the recognition and affection from children the world over. And among his numerous television credits post-Dumbledore, we find similar traits of darkness and redemption within his Scrooge-like turn in a special episode of another family favourite, Doctor Who.

Though he retired from the theatre in 2015, Gambon continued to act in film and TV until just before his 80th birthday. It was that mesmerising combination of rage and vulnerability that always made him a compelling screen actor to watch, making audiences always care about the characters he inhabited.

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Aziz Pahad: the unassuming South African diplomat who skilfully mediated crises in Africa, and beyond

Aziz Goolam Pahad, who has died at the age of 82, was a South African anti-apartheid activist, politician and deputy minister of foreign affairs in the post-1994 government.

Together with a small group of foreign policy analysts, I worked with Aziz over the span of 30 years, shaping the post-apartheid South African government’s approach to international relations and its foreign policy. We spent countless hours debating foreign affairs and the numerous crises and challenges government had to face as a relative “newcomer” in continental African and global affairs.

Aziz was generous with giving his time to formulate positions that would allow for the unlocking of a crisis. He remained open to intellectual challenges throughout his career. He was a keen participant in academic research projects dealing with foreign policy.

He made a monumental contribution to the struggle against apartheid and colonial oppression in South Africa, the continent and the Middle East. And he contributed significantly to the development and execution of a progressive African-centred foreign policy doctrine. Sadly, towards the end of his career as a diplomat he witnessed the slow decline of South Africa’s stature and influence in global affairs.

The Mandela and Mbeki years

Under presidents Nelson Mandela (1994-1999) and Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), South African diplomats who’d sharpened their skills during many years of exile became sought-after as facilitators and mediators. Under their guidance Africa converted the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union, and reset relations with the international community via the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

South African diplomats were articulate and visible in the corridors of the United Nations and in gatherings such as the Group of 7, Group of 20 and the Non-Aligned Movement. They were able to advance Africa’s quest for peace and development. In Africa, political and security crises, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burundi, were given attention.

Read more:
South Africa and Russia: President Cyril Ramaphosa’s foreign policy explained

However this “golden era” of South Africa’s foreign policy, as fellow scholar Chris Landsberg calls it, was unable to withstand the corroding effects of foreign meddling in African affairs. Neither could it withstand the grand corruption which reached its apogee in South Africa under former president Jacob Zuma (May 2009 – February 2018).

Preparatory years

Aziz was born on 25 December 1940 in the former Transvaal, the current North West province in South Africa. His parents were Amina and Goolam Pahad, activists in the Transvaal Indian Congress, a political organisation established in the early 1900s by Mahatma Gandhi and others. The congress became involved in the broader anti-apartheid struggle in later years. His elder brother, Essop, also became an activist. Essop passed away in July.

In 1963, Aziz completed a degree in sociology and Afrikaans at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. As an activist, he was served with a banning order and arrested on several occasions. After the Rivonia Trial from 1963 to 1964, in which ten leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were tried for sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system of racial oppression, he and Essop left South Africa and went into exile.

Aziz spent some time in Angola and Zimbabwe but lived mostly in London. He completed a master’s degree in politics and international relations at the University of Sussex. He worked full-time for the exiled ANC and supported the development of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Even before his return to South Africa in 1990, he contributed to the transition from apartheid to democracy, a role well described in his book Insurgent Diplomat: Civil Talks or Civil War?.

Aziz worked closely with Thabo Mbeki, at the time head of the exiled ANC’s international relations department, and a small team of academics in formulating the ANC’s position on foreign policy. The paper formed part of preparations by the ANC and its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, for governing the country.

Read more:
South Africa’s foreign policy: new paper sets the scene, but falls short on specifics

The foreign policy paper provided a broad roadmap for diplomats post-apartheid. It eventually shaped government’s more formal foreign policy of 2011, entitled Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu. In the mid-1990s, Aziz was instrumental in the establishment, with support from the German government, of an ANC-aligned think-tank called the Foundation of Global Dialogue, run by foreign policy expert and academic Garth le Pere and myself. It lives on as the Institute of Global Dialogue, based at the University of South Africa.

Role in government

Following the victory of the ANC in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, Aziz was elected to parliament. From there, he was appointed by President Mandela as deputy minister of foreign affairs. He was re-elected to parliament in 1999 and 2004, and kept his position as deputy minister of foreign affairs throughout the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies.

Holding the post for 14 years meant that he was able to create and nurture a wide network of political, academic and diplomatic connections. This enabled him to play an unassuming but key mediating and facilitation role dealing with major crises on the continent and beyond.

But Aziz also showed his activist roots when he spoke out against the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Nato-led invasion of Libya and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. He supported the Palestinian struggle for recognition over many decades.

Aziz resigned from government and parliament in 2008, shortly after Mbeki was removed as president of the ANC in 2007.

The ‘diplomat-scholar’

In retirement, Aziz remained active as a “diplomat-scholar”. He played a prominent role, with his brother Essop, in a small but influential think-tank, the Concerned Africans Forum. In 2015 he headed the short-lived South African Council on International Relations.

The council was established by the government as a body of experts and a sounding board for senior decision-makers. However, its semi-autonomous identity brought it into conflict with the ruling party’s foreign affairs structures. Politicians allowed it to wither away.

In 2018 the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa asked Aziz to lead a commission of experts to review South Africa’s international relations. In a sad repeat of the council’s demise, the commission was never given a proper hearing and its value remains untapped.

Read more:
Why it’s time South Africa’s foreign policy was driven by ideas (again)

This is perhaps illustrative of the reality of policy-making in dynamic settings such as South Africa’s foreign affairs. The essence of Aziz’s contribution to a progressive African-oriented worldview was ultimately ignored by the foreign policy mandarins.

The country will miss having a “diplomat-scholar” of his calibre to turn to for sage advice. Läs mer…

Coffy: how Blaxploitation star Pam Grier helped lead the way for strong resilient women in film

When Pam Grier’s breakthrough movie Coffy was released in 1973, American International Pictures was clearly confident that her eponymous character was a supercharged heroine who would excite filmgoers.

“She’s the ‘GODMOTHER’ of them all!”, exclaimed the poster, linking the African-American Coffy to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather (released the previous year). More enthusiastically still, the poster also called her “The Baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad That Ever Hit Town!”

Grier’s starring role in Coffy marked an upgrade in her screen status, following a series of smaller roles in exploitative prison flicks. Her proficiency in energetic action sequences and her openness to frank bodily display made her a perfect fit for American cinema in an era permitting more violence and nudity on screen than before. But Coffy saw her for the first time as the main propulsive force in a Blaxploitation movie.

Album / Alamy

A label more popular than scholarly, Blaxploitation captures the wave of low-budget, black-character-centred films that emerged from Hollywood in the first half of the 1970s. This cinematic movement was simultaneously reactionary and progressive, manifesting in the same instant both restrictive effects and liberating gestures.

On the one hand, Blaxploitation was the product of a studio system that was still white-dominated, with relatively few African-American executives, producers and directors. The films were not so much clear political statements as nakedly commercial ventures, characterised by low production values and familiar genre codes.

But on the other, the movies highlighted African-American agency and creativity. Crude and cartoonish though many of them were, they were nevertheless more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King in atmospherics, with protagonists who preferred to defeat whites than build multiracial alliances.

Coffy embodies the contradictions of Blaxploitation in a highly concentrated form. The film’s 50th anniversary allows us to reassess this vein of filmmaking and, more particularly, to think about the mixed politics of Grier’s own star image.

A liberated woman

In her day job, Coffy is a nurse engaged in emergency care. Outside working hours, however, she embarks on a one-woman crusade to annihilate the drug dealers who have rendered her young sister comatose and brought misery to many in the black community.

According to her lover, African-American politician Howard Brunswick, Coffy is a liberated woman. Just as she does in later Blaxploitation films such as Foxy Brown (1974) and Sheba, Baby (1975), Grier dispenses with legal niceties as she dynamically sets about remedying her people’s ills. Nevertheless, a sense of constriction, as well as liberation, is still apparent in her screen persona.

Only two years after Coffy’s release, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey published her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This theorised the heterosexual male gaze that Mulvey saw as governing mainstream film.

While men are “bearers of the look”, women by contrast are coded on screen “for strong visual and erotic impact, so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness”. Grier, in Coffy, is frequently exhibited in this way, her unclothed body a point of obsession for the camera.

Yet if Grier is a female object in the film, she is also emphatically a feminist subject. As she said in her 2010 autobiography, Foxy: “My movies featured women claiming the right to fight back, which previously had been out of the question.”

Coffy fights back heroically, surviving injury and laughing in the face of death as she erases drug pushers, bent cops and corrupt politicians. She is not only physically adept, but mentally agile too.

Grier’s performance in Coffy helped to initiate an American action cinema oriented around resourceful and resilient women. Think of the tradition that extends from Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise and Terminator’s Linda Hamilton, to Black Panther’s Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o. Crucially, it should be added that these descendants had the advantages of rich narrative and developed characterisation that were denied to Grier as she worked on the rapid production line of low-budget Blaxploitation cinema.

Dreaming of something better

More than once, as she enacts her spree of purifying violence, Coffy speaks of being in “a dream”. Fantasy, or wish-fulfilment, is central to the film, as it is in so many other Blaxploitation movies where heroes with improbable powers engineer magical solutions to the problems of racism and inequality.

Coffy’s dream of one woman redressing systemic injustice prompts caution, if not scepticism. Though the film is touched by the Black Panther Party’s imperative of militant resistance, it utterly lacks the Panthers’ attention to communal struggle. As black studies academic Kehinde Andrews insists: “Radical engagement must be built on collective agency … to reassert black radicalism we have to push back against the corrosive idea that there can ever be an individual revolution.”

Don’t mess with Coffy.
Entertainment Pictures / Alamy

At the same time, however, fantasy is part of any liberatory politics. If the actual prospects of an African-American woman triumphing as thoroughly as Coffy does are negligible, the spectacle of her unimpeded resistance to the unjust is still inspirational.

This finally, perhaps, is the value of Blaxploitation movies such as Coffy. In the face of a long history of African-American pain, from chattel slavery to the violence galvanising Black Lives Matter in our own moment, these films alter the mood and start to imagine what a better society might look like.

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Ukraine war: Russian shelling is taking a deadly toll on urban bats

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has given rise to a humanitarian crisis. More than 6.2 million people have fled Ukraine as a result of heavy shelling and fighting, and an additional 5.1 million people have been internally displaced.

But wars do not only inflict suffering on humans – animals suffer too. Research by the Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center (the largest project for bat conservation, research and outreach in eastern Europe) has brought into focus the plight of bats in the war-damaged city of Kharkiv. Situated only 30km from the Russian border, Kharkiv has suffered severe damage from relentless shelling throughout the conflict.

In 2022, shelling may have led directly to the killing of approximately 7,000 noctule bats (Nyctalus noctula) – a species common throughout Europe. Nearly 3,000 more bats then became trapped inside damaged buildings, where many subsequently died. More trapped bats were found in Kharkiv in 2022 than in the preceding four years combined.

Despite the challenges posed by the invasion, scientists at the Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center have valiantly continued their bat conservation efforts, providing care and rehabilitation for injured bats. These efforts have also given scientists the opportunity to gather data on how the invasion has affected bats and their roosting locations.

Shelling may have led to the killing of 7,000 noctule bats in Kharkiv alone in 2022.
Denisa Mikesova/Shutterstock

Bats in trouble?

Bats inhabit parts of urban areas that are particularly susceptible to attacks. Noctule bats, for instance, spend most of the winter hibernating within multistorey buildings, such as in cavities between concrete blocks.

The damage to the city began at the end of the bat hibernation season (November to April). Consequently, some of the buildings were sheltering thousands of hibernating bats when the first strikes occurred. The researchers estimate that as many as 45% of the buildings in Kharkiv that bats roost in have been completely or partially destroyed by shelling.

During this hibernation period, bats enter a state of inactivity where they reduce their heart rate and metabolic state. Once they have entered this state, they can take upwards of 20 minutes to wake up, so cannot respond to danger quickly.

From August to October, bats again gather in these buildings to mate, during a period known as “autumn swarming”. Windows left open by people as they were evacuating, or that were broken during the war, made it easy for bats to fly inside these buildings, where they subsequently became trapped.

During the autumn swarming period in 2022, three times as many bats were found trapped in buildings than the average in non-war years, with a death rate of around 30%.

Lured into a trap

In 2022, Kharkiv might also have been experiencing a higher bat population than is usual for autumn. Typically, researchers observe only a few bats in the weeks directly following the autumn swarming, a period they term the “autumn silence”. Between 2016 and 2019, they recorded sightings of fewer than 10 bats every few days during this silence.

However, during the same period in 2022, they reported sightings of over 100 bats on three occasions. This suggests that the usual autumn silence period may not have occurred.

This surge in bat numbers could have been brought about for several reasons. In the early days of the war, streetlights in Kharkiv were switched off and there was minimal lighting from houses, so the level of artificial light pollution was reduced. Artificial light pollution can disrupt bats, making them more vulnerable to predators and causing them to emerge from their roosts later at night.

The increase in bat sightings could also be explained by the growth of unmown grass and vegetation in the city during the conflict. This may have offered an increased supply of insects for the bats to feed on.

War-damaged windows became gateways for bats to enter buildings.
Tatyana Vyc/Shutterstock

Protecting animals in conflict zones

Hundreds of thousands of bats are estimated to hibernate in Kharkiv each year. The proportion of bats that have been killed or trapped in the city’s war-damaged environment is therefore still relatively low.

But this same story is probably happening throughout all of Ukraine’s war-damaged cities, resulting in many more bat fatalities. So the impact the war is having on their population is still worrying.

Bats play an important role in the ecosystem, particularly because they prey on insects. A substantial decline in bat populations has the potential to result in an uptick in the population of insect pests.

Invasive insect pests carry a substantial economic burden, imposing a yearly cost of at least US$70 billion (£57 billion) to the global economy. According to research, the economic value of bats to the US agricultural sector alone is estimated at nearly US$23 billion annually.

The Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center’s research has highlighted the ecological impact war can have on urban bats. However, this may apply to many other key species too.

When the time comes to repair Ukraine’s damaged cities, the significance of urban wildlife must not be overlooked. These animals are an important part of the urban environment. As people rebuild their lives, they must ensure a home is rebuilt for nature too. Läs mer…

Nagorno-Karabakh: the world should have seen this crisis coming — and it’s not over yet

As a result of the Azerbaijani attack on the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19 and the forced exodus that followed it, this region will soon be empty of Armenians – for the first time in more than two millennia.

This was a tragedy that could have been avoided. The New York Times recently wrote about what’s now happening in Nagorno-Karabakh that “almost no one saw it coming”. Nothing could be more wrong. Armenians, as well as those who have followed the conflict, have warned for a long time that this was coming.

The global community and its institutions, including the EU, arguably let Azerbaijan get away with its military adventures, which only spurred the country on.

In the summer of 2022, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Baku and concluded an agreement on gas supplies from Azerbaijan to Europe. She has several times since then praised the country as the EU’s “reliable energy partner”.

Bolstered by this backing, a few months later Azerbaijan launched an attack, not on Nagorno-Karabakh but on several areas inside Armenia itself. Since then, Azerbaijan has occupied more than 100 square kilometres of Armenia’s uncontested and internationally recognised territory.

The EU could only appeal for restraint and was relieved when the fighting stopped after two days.

Global inaction

In December 2022, Azerbaijan began a blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. In February, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a binding order that Azerbaijan must immediately allow the unimpeded movement of people and goods along the corridor. Azerbaijan ignored this.

During the summer, the situation worsened for the 120,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, with acute shortages of food, petrol and medicine. Malnutrition was rife. The situation became so serious that several organisations warned of a possible genocide.

The UN refugee agency says more than 88,000 people have crossed into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh and more are expected.
EPA-EFE/Anatoly Maltsev

At the beginning of August, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued an expert opinion, in which he stated that what Azerbaijan was doing “should be considered a Genocide under Article II, (c) of the Genocide Convention”.

The article in question gives one definition of genocide as: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

During the more-than-nine months that the blockade lasted, western leaders condemned it and demanded that Azerbaijan lift it. But no measures of force whatsoever were put behind this demand and there were no sanctions, or even threats of sanctions.

The government of Azerbaijan understood the signals. You can bring down a humanitarian crisis on more than a 100,000 people, even to the brink of genocide, without suffering anything but verbal condemnations.

This is ethnic cleansing

After the latest escalation, various prominent EU representatives have once again condemned the use of force and made various appeals. It is as if they don’t see what’s in front of them: the aggressive plans of authoritarian states are not stopped by condemnations and appeals. Much sharper measures are required.

The government that ran what Armenia called Artsakh, or the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, has now collapsed. Its president, Samvel Shahramanyan, has declared that the state will be formally dissolved at the end of this year. The UN has estimated that 88,000 of its 120,000 inhabitants have already fled to Armenia.

Azerbaijan claims that they were not forced to do this, they fled voluntarily. On a superficial level, that is correct as no Azerbaijani soldiers forcibly removed them.

But they are not fleeing voluntarily. Instead they have been put in a situation where they have no other choice. In just over 30 years, Azerbaijan has attacked them four times.

In 2020, many of them sat for weeks in bomb shelters while Azerbaijan attacked with missiles and drones. This summer they have endured acute shortages of food and medicine due to the illegal blockade.

The last straw was the 24-hour bombardment on September 19 that has finally driven the ethnic Armenian population from their homes. I therefore believe it is correct to call this ethnic cleansing.

Five days before the Azerbaijani attack on the enclave a representative of the US government said that the USA would not tolerate the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh. Now it has happened and Washington seems to tolerate it, if the lack of sanctions on Azerbaijan are any indication.

It is not over

There is reason to remain concerned about Azerbaijan’s plans. After the suppression of the Karabakh Armenians, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, reiterated what he has said before that he sees what he calls “Western Armenia” as historical Azerbaijani territory that Azerbaijan therefore has the right to reclaim.

Map of the region showing the concept of the ‘Zanzegur corridor’ which would cut across the southernmost region of Armenia to connect Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, and Turkey to the rest of Turkic world through Armenia’s Syunik Province.
Mapeh/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

By this he means Armenia. In these plans, he has the full backing of Turkey. The first target will be the southern part of Armenia, the province of Syunik, which Azerbaijan calls Zangezur.

Resolute action from the west is needed to ensure that the aggressive Azeri regime does not, in its current victory rush, embark on new military adventures. The EU could introduce sanctions against this regime, something that more than 60 MEPs from different party groups have already recently called for.

Azerbaijan’s assault on Nagorno-Karabakh must have consequences. Should the regime in Baku get away with this with impunity, it will be inspired to continue its aggression against Armenians. This would be a dangerous signal to leaders of other authoritarian states.

The lesson of the tragedy now unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh is that verbal condemnations and appeals do not stop the aggression of authoritarian states. Only sharp measures can do that. Läs mer…