DRAFTEpisode 39
00:00 / 34:51

Details and Transcript

Buzzsprout Affiliate Link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/?referrer_id=891796

Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 01:15 - Segment 1: Three Bears Wood (Short Story)

  • 11:21 - Segment 2: The Origin of "The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side" (Metaphor History)

  • 22:47 - Segment 3: Research Sustainability (Communication Topic)

  • 33:58 - Segment 4: Talk With Oisin Joyce (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my wholesome family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome, to the 39th episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

As always, to show support if you like this sort of content, it’s very simple, please take 5 seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on. It truly helps small, independent podcasts reach new people and grow the show with minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Without a doubt, I will hold another draw on my 40th episode for… the ultimate Metaphorigins prize. Again, a week before the finale, I will post a picture of the renowned prize on the instagram page, so do follow for a chance to win the… customized thing, here, right here, with me, right now!

 

Okay. So for today’s episode, I’ll be talking about a not-so-common expression that gets typically associated with our dissatisfaction with current affairs.

 

Cue the lights. We find ourselves in an ordinary suburban neighbourhood on the outskirts of a city. This neighbourhood is so suburban, in fact, that each house looked identical to the next: two-tier complexes; fancy fountains positioned elegantly in the middle of rounded driveways; wide, inviting modern windows; pointed, triangular roofs with maroon shingles; and large, trimmed lawns for gardening and playing. It’s so photogenic of everyday living that it was featured on the cover of Baseline Living Magazine. The residents of the neighbourhood were quite proud of this feature.

 

You are a recent resident of this neighbourhood, called Three Bears Wood. After gaining accolades in your field of work, you began acquiring real estate in suburban areas just like this one, renting them out and gaining profit. Sure, this may be the reason for the housing crisis suffered by people in this city, but hey, people need to make a living, and people need space for their shit.

 

Lucky for you, you have one of the corner houses, and had the peace of not sharing one siding with another resident of the neighbourhood. Stepping outside on a beautiful morning, sun shining warmly as it peaks over the horizon and a light breeze casting fresh air on exposed skin, you glance around. The symmetry of it all is breathtaking, an aesthetic admiration you have carried across amongst different aspects of your life. 

 

You look to your neighbour on the left. A similar looking house design to yours; driveway and front gate just like everyone else’s, except their fountain was square shaped. “That’s fine,” you say to yourself, despite the fact that you love 90 degree corners. You also notice their luxury SUV is of a gold tinge, with number-coded locks. “That’s okay,” you say to yourself, despite the fact that you love golden number-coded locks. On top of that, you notice their lawns were a brighter hue of green, reflecting the morning dew straight in your direction, like sparkles in the dawn. You think about this for a second, and head back inside.

 

Working from home, you become engrossed in these findings. Who designed their driveway fountain? What brand of car was theirs, and was it custom-painted? Why was their lawn so green? Instead of filing your reports, as people who work from home most certainly do, you start thinking about how you could improve your current situation to match theirs. You call your contractor and demand that he renovate your fountain into the shape of a diamond. You peruse the car dealerships in the area and find a custom-painted golden SUV with number AND letter-coded locks. You take out your sprinkler from the back shed and plug that into the garden hose. Within a few weeks, the renovations had been completed, the car was exchanged, and the lawn looked much greener and healthier. In fact, as you step outside one morning, you are pleased at the modifications made. All was just right, and you smiled at the sun rays gleaming off your face.

 

This same morning, you look to your neighbour on the right. Again, a similar looking house design to yours and everyone else’s, except their large-inviting windows were cleaner. “That’s fine,” you say to yourself, despite the fact that you love transparent glass. You notice their mailbox had a cute little flag perked upwards by the post service if a delivery was made. “That’s okay,” you say to yourself, despite the fact that you love kitsch household staples like mailbox flag notices. On top of that, you notice their lawn was an even brighter hue of green, almost like a miniature sea of kelp waving in the early breeze. You think about this for a second, and head back inside.

 

Continuing to work from home, you become enraged with these findings. Who cleans their window glass? Where did they get their objectifiably useful mailbox? Why is their lawn so green? Instead of replying back to emails, as people who work from home most certainly do, you start thinking about how you could improve your current situation to match theirs. You hire a cleaner to swing by the house every week. You head to the local Home Depot to purchase the bright-red archetype of a mailbox with a flag that gets raised, signalling an app on your phone that you’ve received a delivery. You also purchase some fertilizer from their gardening section to use as topsoil for your lawn. Within a few weeks, the windows were pristine, the mailbox was functioning both aesthetically and effectively, and the lawn looked much greener and healthier. In fact, as you step outside one morning, you are pleased at the modifications made. All was just right, and you smile at the gentle wisp of air surfing through your hair.

 

This same morning, both your neighbours were outside as well. One was taking out the garbage for tomorrow’s pickup, and the other was at their front steps grabbing the daily newspaper. You smile and wave, and they return the gesture. They begin walking around their fences and stride towards you.

 

The left neighbour begins the conversation, “Fantastic fountain you’ve recently renovated. Nice new whip as well.”

 

“Thank you,” you reply.

 

The right neighbour chimes in, “Wonderful windows overlooking outside. Magnificent mailbox as well.”

 

“Thank you,” you reply.

 

They get on the same level as you on your front steps. All three of you admire the morning feeling, sun shining warmly as it peaks over the horizon and a light breeze casting fresh air on exposed skin. You all look at your neighbour across the street. Yet again, a similar looking house design to yours and theirs and everyone else’s, except…

 

“Looks like they had built an additional unit overtop their pointed roofs,” the left neighbour says.

 

“That’s fine,” you say out loud, despite the fact that you love having additional space for your shit. You also notice that…

 

“Looks like they widened their garage door for multiple cars to fit inside,” the right neighbour says.

 

“That’s okay,” you say out loud, despite the fact that you were thinking of purchasing a boat that could be more easily placed in this wider format. On top of that, you notice…

 

“Looks like their lawn is the brightest hue of green I’ve ever seen,” you say.

 

“Don’t worry, the grass is always greener on the other side,” the left neighbour says.

 

You look at him. “Why would that be?”

 

The right neighbour chimes in, “We’re not exactly sure,” he says, “theirs probably some scientific explanation behind it. It’s no use, they always get their properties on magazine covers.”

 

With a hardy nod, your neighbours depart from your premises and back to theirs. You think about this for a second, and head back inside.

 

Still working from home, you become infuriated with these findings. How did they balance that additional upstairs unit on their pointed roof? How did they widen their garage door without expanding the actual space? Why was their lawn so damn green? Instead of participating in virtual meetings, as people who work from home most certainly do, you starting thinking how you could improve your current situation to match theirs. You head to the local wood shop and purchase some boarding to build the upstairs unit yourself. You also order a wider garage door that instead of opening upwards it slides downwards through a crack in the driveway pavement. You also buy a drone that helps water and fertilize your lawn 24/7. Within a few weeks, the storage unit was built, the garage door was wide enough for additional vehicles, and the lawn looked much greener and healthier. In fact, as you step outside one morning, you are pleased at the modifications made. All was just right, and you smile at cloudless sky knowing that you at least had the greenest grass in the neighbourhood.

 

A few weeks later, you realize how much money that stupid drone cost you, and so one of your neighbours suggests you attach a camera and get into the hobby. You invite them over to test out the camera and fly the drone around your neighbourhood. Indeed, seeing all the houses for the first time, you realize that there are no more house modifications you believe are necessary. 

 

Suddenly, a slight wind drifts your drone to the neighbourhood adjacent to yours, and you see on the camera a large commotion with press vans and photographers. They seem to be taking pictures for Above Baseline Living Magazine. Astonished, the three of you look at the houses in the much more sunlit area; three-tier complexes; extravagant fountains placed elegantly in the middle of rounded two-lane driveways; comically wide, inviting modern windows with electronically controlled tint; pointed, triangular-prism roofs with mahogany shingles; and vast, trimmed lawns the brightest hue of green imaginable.

 

“That’s fine,” you say out loud, despite that, in fact, it wasn’t fine at all.

 

Okay, let’s purge the imaginary jealous rage out of our systems and return to our own baseline living. Hidden in this reversed spin-off of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I actually found myself thinking, damn, I wonder if everyone has the same ideal household in mind, based on the luxury and status of the most prestigious neighbourhoods of our cities. Anyway, hopefully you caught today’s expression, which will quite literally tie nicely with our SciComm topic. But why is the colour of our ubiquitous non-native plant used to dampen our desires?

 

What’s the origin to the expression, “the grass is always greener on the other side”?

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

Most of this information was obtained from various articles discussing the potential origins to this expression. All source will be mentioned in the description.

 

I will start this segment with an exercise done by every human being almost every single day: Imagine your ideal life. What is so interesting about human thinking is this exact ability to think ahead, to design and mould the future into something that at least resembles one that we could anticipate. You might not think you do this, potentially propelling forward through your education right now, in between temporary jobs, living paycheck to paycheck waiting for a big break. But even at this minute level, we are planning for the unforeseeable future; what to have for breakfast in the morning, what to wear, what means to commute to particular destinations, what to do or have accomplished in the next hour. Whether your choices conclude with you achieving an ideal life, or day, or not achieving these, are within the control of yourself and perhaps the foundation you now stand on.

 

Throughout our lives, we are constantly trying to ensure that we make choices that bring us satisfaction in the immediate future or beyond. Now, you might be arguing with me here, exclaiming that there are individuals who actively choose to make wrong choices that steer them down less-preferred paths. People with depression, addictions, anxiety disorders come to mind. But is that necessarily true? In an article written by Recovery Ways, a treatment centre for addiction behaviour in the US, they discuss the different ways on how depression affects your decision making. Things like indecisiveness, risk aversion and the hopeless belief that whatever choice they make will have little impact in improving their wellbeing. You don’t need to be a trained therapist to understand that any choices stem from imagining your life in the future, good or bad, and lead to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Our desire for betterment can be fuelled not simply in the expectations we have for ourselves, which should be our priority. These expectations can be greatly shaped by the individuals around us, particularly those in the same stage in life. Likely since our species inception, we look at our family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, even individuals in different economic classes and stack ourselves in comparison. Oh, look at that marvellous house, I wonder what she does for a living? Oh, look at their beautiful children, I wonder how their family dinners are? It is inexplicably obvious that these sorts of questions, superficially innocent, may tend to carry emotions like envy, if our own circumstances are not mirrored.

 

Sadly, we cannot even escape this reality that people may be living the exact ideal life we hope to have for ourselves. Even if nobody in our immediate social circle is elevated onto some pedestal of life achievement, there will be countless people online who are not only on this pedestal, but flaunt it to the masses. This is the very rationale for which countless studies aim to investigate the effects on psychology of social media users at various ages. In a Guardian article published this year, writer Ian Sample summarizes one such study published in Nature Communications about how, despite their not being a quantifiable link between social media and wellbeing, there are certainly “windows of vulernability” in which social media relates to our outlook on life and the risk for developing anxiety related conditions.

 

We now come to today’s idiom, often associated with these themes, “The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side.” The Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines that the expression is, “used to say that the things a person does not have always seem more appealing than the things he or she does have”. No matter the financial wealth, the material accumulation, the psychological attribution, there will always be something someone else possesses that we will look to and desire. Even the Dalai Lama, described in his book the Art of Happiness, was once at a supermarket and caught himself desiring something at a shop. Yet it’s not the complete abolishment of desires but the ability to catch yourself in discontent. He is remarked saying, “When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, 'Oh yes - I already have everything that I really need.”

 

There are so many other instances that this universal expression of catching yourself in discontent appears. On Mama Lisa’s International Music and Culture Blog, commentators mention other variations to “The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side.” In Hong Kong, it’s “The rice and vegetable from [your] neighbour smell better”. In German, it’s “The cherries in the neighbour’s garden always taste better”. In Turkish, it’s “he chicken is seen as goose by the neighbour”. And let’s not to exclude French, Danish, Vietnamese, and Portuguese who have all evolved to have this expression of greener grass. I’m always delighted to see consistency in languages around the world.

 

In fact, this is such a widespread cultural phenomenon that there is even a condition named after it, the Grass Is Greener Syndrome. Often connect to FOMO (or the fear of missing out), the e-magazine Psych Central describes the Grass Is Greener Syndrome as “the idea that there is always something better that we are missing. So rather than experiencing stability, security, and satisfaction in the present environment, the feeling is there is more and better elsewhere, and anything less than ideal won’t do”. From this, we look towards idealized futures with fear and fantasy; fear of committing to something larger than ourselves or compromising on our values, and fantasying that personal happiness comes externally. This often occurs in relationships. In a 2018 article written in Bustle, writer Laken Howard describes the damage which Greener Grass Syndrome can have, “when you're scared that your relationship isn't "good enough" for the long haul and you seek to replace your current situation rather than improve it, that's when grass is greener syndrome has the opportunity to really do some damage. You might start to have omnipresent doubts about the future of your relationship, and constantly go back and forth on whether or not breaking up is the right choice for you”.

 

But alright, where does this expression originate from? Know Your Phrase and Idioms.com recount how herds of animals always move towards greener pastures. It is also often noted that fenced animals like cattle will try and reach their heads to grass at boundary lines, where perhaps fields have not be trampled by their own presence. Other sources like Phrase Finder state usage of the idiom in print, from an 1897 Pennsylvania newspaper, the Public Press, “The [Klondyke gold] mines are wonderful, but probably not so wonderful as represented. Grass is always greener, you know, further away.”, as well as from an 1853 New York Times article, “It bewitched your correspondent with a desire to see greener grass and set foot on fresher fields”. Both of which use the metaphorical meaning, and thus concluding that it was well understood metaphorically well before that.

 

We go all the way back to 1545, where, described by Writing Explained and The Village Idiom, an English translation of Erasmus of Rotterdam exists with a similar meaning, “The corn in another man’s ground seems ever more fertile and plentiful than our own does”. Yet, even this idea of our longing to match our neighbour’s agricultural wealth can be traced back even further. Also mentioned is the Roman Poet Ovid, born during the reign of Augustus. In one of his famous works, “The Art of Love” published in 1 BC, Ovid states, “The crop of corn is always more fertile in the fields of other people; and the herds of our neighbours have their udders more distended”. It is this proverbial announcement that is the earliest sourced mention of this renowned saying.

 

In all this researching for the origin, I find it interesting that our desires are rooted in how we tend to love others and ourselves, how we keep and maintain the relationships we have with our fellow neighbours. and how we quell self-doubt with contentment and happiness. In the majority of my sources, writers often claim that this expression is long past its time for usefulness and that it should instead be replaced with, “The grass is always greener where you water it.” It seems like this practice of being mindful of your current status by Ovid, the Dalai Lama, or relationship therapists alike is shouted from the top of their lungs. Perhaps this is what needs to be more addressed, that in our search for greener grass, we forget to pick up something more essential in sustaining our own.

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

For my communications segment, I want to do something a bit different and highlight an important topic taken up by many early career researchers at my university, Trinity College Dublin (yes, here in Ireland, college and university are used interchangeably). And that topic is research sustainability.

 

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that the hospitable world is going to end, eventually. Yet, there is one species on this planet that has the power to change how soon that will be: humans.

 

There is no question that we have drastically impacted the climate. To quote Sir David Attenborough’s speech from the COP26 Opening Ceremony, “Our burning of fossil fuels, our destruction of nature, our approach to industry, construction and learning, are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace and scale”. The amount of carbon in our atmosphere has greatly surged and with it, so have global temperatures, leading to uncharacteristic weather phenomena felt by millions around the globe.

 

Lowering our collective carbon footprint through harvesting sustainable energy and waste reduction is the scientific endeavour of our lifetime. Through observation and analyses, scientists have the ability to monitor Earth’s climate and innovate solutions to reduce our capability to destabilize. This in itself is quite inspiring, and has led to the initiation of countless academic, corporate and community projects aimed at creating a better world. These stories from the individual to group-led pursuits are the basis for scientific discovery in this regard.

 

Happily, most academic institutes seem to acknowledge this prescient issue. And this is echoed by my current university. In fact, hosted in February was Trinity’s 20th Green Week, on the theme of “Repairing Our Broken Food Systems”. Throughout the week, students were encouraged to try out a plant-based diet. In an email sent to all academic staff and students by Professor Yvonne Buckley, Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action, “Livestock alone account for more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 25.8% of Irish emissions (in 2020). A mostly plant-based diet would cut those global and Irish emissions by 70% and 63%, respectively.”

 

Despite not actively participating in climate research, I often still reflect on my own carbon footprint as a PhD student in the biological sciences. I look through rooms of incredible equipment using large amounts of electricity from the grid. I look at biohazard bags containing absurd amounts of single-use plastics. I look in ventilated fume hoods stocked with opaque jugs of chemical waste. I have made excuses to myself and peers that these are consequences of pushing that scientific frontier in my research field. In reality, the bittersweet realization is that every scientist can decrease the amount of inefficiencies in their research by making small changes that lean toward sustainability, thus actively contributing to the global “green” effort.

 

Of course, scientific laboratories are resource-intensive spaces. The non-profit organization My Green Lab, estimates that labs use ten times more energy and four times more water than offices spaces. In addition, labs produce 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, meaning that this mass of non-degradable plastics end up in our landfills.

 

So, this got me wondering, with about 314 labs actively conducting research, what is my university doing to implement better sustainable practices in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and what is my role within the scientific community as a whole?

 

In an effort to make sure their voices are heard for a University Times article that is probably never going to see the light of day, I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the TCD Green Labs initiative. One was Camilla Roselli, a PhD Candidate in Trinity’s Institute of Neuroscience and previous chair of TCD Green Labs. Together with recent PhD graduate Martha Gulman and Trinity’s Sustainability Advisor Michele Hallahan, Roselli not only kickstarted the Green Labs initiative but also co-created Trinity’s Green Labs Guide, a comprehensive overview of the consequences for global scientific research and practices that can be implemented to reduce inefficiencies (its link will be in the description). A majority of the guide tailored to early career researchers focuses on four main elements: 1) water management, 2) energy, 3) waste and 4) green chemistry.

 

Water management is certainly not on the list of priorities for most trainees at a public research institute. Mentioned in the guide, “Labs contain a myriad of water-driven equipment, from condensers, to pumps, to autoclaves. Reducing your lab’s water consumption not only saves the precious resource of fresh water but also reduces the carbon footprint from electricity needed to pump water throughout the water infrastructure.” This could include a simple aerator attachment to faucets, which most of us have already, that greatly reduce water waste, as well as the proper usage of fancy deionized or ultra-high purity water.

 

Energy consumption is also a metric usually hidden in the background of research. By simply switching off equipment when not in use, or increasing temperatures of ultra-low freezers by a scientifically tested 10 degrees celcius, this figure could be greatly reduced. Professor Kingston Mills, the Director of Trinity’s Biomedical Sciences Institute, stated in this year’s Green Labs panel discussion in February, “increasing temperatures of freezers from -80C to -70 degrees Celsius saved €20,000 in [the institute].” 

 

Oisín Joyce, President of Neuroscience Ireland’s Early Career Research Network and a member of TCD Green Labs, reiterated to me how important it is for early career researchers to be aware of their energy usage. Simple colour labelling, such as a Traffic Light Sticker system to make clear what equipment should remain on or can be turned off, have been implemented in multiple research labs on campus. When asked about the reluctance that researchers have about viable alternatives, Joyce stated that these, “come from a conception that sustainability comes at a cost to your science, that you’ll actually sacrifice your time, quality or even success in order to make it sustainable, but it’s actually the complete opposite, that there are viable alternatives, there are other labs that you can collaborate with, and these might be very small, but very effective in the long term.”

 

Waste in research labs is usually the most discussed, and also the most apparent. Mentioned in the guide, “An average Irish person produces 61 kg of plastic annually compared to an average bench scientist who typically produces over 1000 kg of plastic waste each year.” In the biological sciences, a plethora of single-use plastics are used without so much as a blink of the eye. Waste is also in conjunction with green lab chemistry, in which toxic solvents and reagents continue to be used in old procedures and stored within ever accumulating waste jars. An awareness of more modernized protocols could help prevent the accumulation of hazardous waste.

 

Pauline Schmitt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Biomedical Sciences Institute and the Secretary of TCD Green Labs, has long observed the carelessness of waste disposal. Even from early on in her career, Schmitt stated to me, “it seems logical to apply personal life practices to daily life at work”. Waste reduction is one of the most significant goals of this initiative. Among many projects she hopes to highlight are the implementation of polystyrene recycling systems. When ordering reagents or materials, companies often package and ship products within polystyrene containers that have very little relation to the size of what was ordered, leading to excessive waste. The initiative has been working with Rehab Recycle to create a recycling stream for this excessive packaging waste. I’m also thrilled to share that Trinity’s Green Labs and Trinity’s Sustainability Office has organized multiple meetings throughout the year with some of Ireland’s largest research suppliers to discuss alternatives to improve current practices, including Fisher Scientific and Merck.

 

With Trinity incorporating a new Vice-Provost in Sustainability, this should only add towards this green trend. Ireland in itself has been an up-and-coming player in green lab practices, having NUI Galway’s Medical Device Laboratory being the first lab certified by My Green Lab in the European Union. Despite this, only NUI Galway and Trinity College Dublin are featured on Irish Green Labs, a network growing out of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s (SEAI) Working Group for Public Sector Labs with the aim of assisting labs to optimise their energy management systems.

 

What Roselli, Joyce and Schmitt all believe is causing the biggest hurdles within the local research community are not resources, but structure and habits. All advocate that Trinity have paid positions for increasing sustainability on campus and to encourage the implementation of green practices. Sadly, it often falls under the responsibility of trainees to increase visibility in research sustainability, the same people who are already inundated with their research projects, and the cycle more or less continues.

 

When asked about habits and the difficulty for change to happen in the research community, the answer may be as simple as practicing mindfulness; taking the time to pause and realize where sustainability could fit into your research techniques. Awareness of any protocol changes without impacting the research is something TCD Green Labs hopes to instil from the very beginning, advocating for workshops on green laboratory practices at the start of a researcher’s career at Trinity College. 

 

This sentiment seems to hold true for most movements that are worth striving for, as through changing one’s habits this can produce a chain reaction of changing the habits of those around you. It’s a cultural shift surrounded in tradition that will certainly be difficult to modify, but one will never be alone in this effort. Perhaps through highlighting the consequences of conducting scientific research en masse, the initiative will inspire others and future Trinity researchers to consider green lab practices as normality.

 

*Theme Music*