Bradford Council’s motto had passed me by until recently. Then I saw it adorning the scaffolding of the city’s old Odeon building, which is soon to be reborn as the city’s biggest indoor music and entertainment venue, Bradford Live.
In some respects, the motto seems to hark from a different era – perhaps the Victorian age, in the boom times for ‘wool city’? Or maybe it would have been more apt in Edwardian times, when the city hosted a Great Exhibition in Lister Park, attracting 2.4 million guests, and whose star attraction was a vast Industrial Hall?
But no – the words were adopted as recently as 1976.
The motto summarises what Bradford stood for then, and it was retained when the crest was updated just five years ago, when the council stated that it “still chimes with our priorities”. But reading it on such a flagship development made me think: what relevance might the concepts of progress, industry and humanity have today?
A hardworking and welcoming city
Whether it is taken to mean manufacturing, or hard work, the term ‘industry’ sums up both the heritage and grit which many see as characterising the city. Whilst a more competitive global environment, a move towards synthetic materials, and a change in government priorities led to deindustrialisation, Bradford hosts the national and regional headquarters of several large companies in both the manufacturing and service sector, so its inclusion is relatively uncontroversial.
Similarly, few would argue against the place of ‘humanity’ in the city’s motto. Bradford is a diverse city which has welcomed outsiders throughout its history, and especially so since the 1950s. This has been cemented by it being awarded City of Sanctuary status in 2010, recognising the role that it has played in providing a place of safety for people who have fled dangerous circumstances. Whilst the city, like many dynamic places, has experienced challenges, its diversity is also a source of its strength and vibrancy. Moreover, with a quarter of its population being under 18, and with an average age of 37, recognising and investing in Bradford’s humanity is crucial.
That leaves ‘progress’.
A place of progress?
From around the sixteenth century until just a few decades ago, the concept of ‘progress’ was rarely questioned in the western world, outside of the realms of certain branches of philosophy and literature. Victorian Britons had a particular fondness for the idea that there was an inexorable drive towards ever advancing material, social and moral conditions, and that there was great pride to be had in promoting its cause. Ideas of progress went hand in hand with those of ‘civilisation’, and, driven by the Industrial Revolution and a widespread increase in living standards during the nineteenth and twentieth century, it is no surprise that the authorities in Bradford embraced the term in the 1970s and continue to do so today.
The dark side of progress
However, progress, does, of course, have its dark side. Domestically, the Industrial Revolution drew many millions of people into cities across Britain, and whilst conditions eventually improved, squalor and pollution led to disease and premature death for many. Notions of progress would have rung hollow to those working long hours in ‘dark satanic mills’, let alone the men, women and children who toiled underground in the early days of mining, as I was reminded of in a recent trip to the Welsh museum of mining at Big Pit, Blaenavon. Rural life was no bucolic idyll, but for many, the move to the city must have seemed like a step backwards rather than a step forwards.
Environmentally, not only did ‘progress’ turn many parts of cities into dirty, smog-ridden, Dickensian hellholes, but its voracious appetite for raw materials led to the denudation of forests, the loss of biodiversity, and the industrialisation of farming. Fossil fuel-led economic development has resulted in climate change, and colonisation, enslavement, and the oppression of indigenous peoples and cultures can also be linked to western notions of ‘progress’. Such concerns reverberate today, and the very concept has fallen into disuse.
So, in this era of recognising historical wrongdoings, should we campaign to expunge the word ‘progress’ from the council’s motto?
A reformed notion of progress
No. Instead, we should rally around a reformed notion of progress. Yes, we must recognise that many ‘steps forward’ have hidden costs which may not fully manifest themselves for decades. And yes, the framework of ‘sustainable development’, as adopted by the United Nations, is useful, but does it stir up the passions needed to meet the challenges of the future with energy, hope, and action?
Believing in ‘progress’ and the capacity of humankind to improve our lot has helped most of humankind to become wealthier, healthier, more educated, and, believe it or not, more peaceful, over recent centuries. But whilst many of us in more affluent countries have met our material needs, many both at home and abroad have not, and we shouldn’t give up on ideas of progress whilst such inequalities remain.
Humans thrive on having goals to aim for, and starting conversations about what our shared ideas of progress might involve will foster an atmosphere in which we can share such goals and work towards meeting them.
Images of people on the move, destroyed hospitals and victims of war have appalled me. But whenever I see footage of a child’s palm on one side of a departing train’s window and their father’s palm on the other, it hits home, it hits hard, and I well up: that could be me and that could be my child.
Faced with this and other heart-breaking scenes from Ukraine, as with other crises both at home and abroad, many of us will feel helpless. Students will also be reacting to the war in schools across the country; many of them will be feeling increasingly uncertain and anxious as the situation develops. Teachers have been impelled to respond, and some of these responses are also worth considering by parents and others with concerns about the welfare of our young people.
The role of schools
School leaders and form tutors alike have been preparing and delivering assemblies and activities to help young people navigate the crisis, and these have been shared on social and traditional media alike. In the short term, we can also point to the highly valued role which pastoral and counselling teams play as students seek emotional guidance and support. And it is easy to forget the crucial role played by the mere fact of attending school, which gives our students a well justified sense of security.
The war will also be used as a contemporary reference point by teachers of history: parallels and connections with previous European and world conflicts are already being drawn. Moreover, the powerful media content emanating from Ukraine will sharpen our senses and remind us of the self-destructive capacity of certain members of our species.
Politics teachers will be able to help their students understand the contemporary context of the conflict, whilst war poetry written over a century ago will, in the expert hands of English teachers, have renewed power and poignancy.
It’s also about time that geography teachers – and I write as one – become more forthright about the value of their subject in understanding energy security and geopolitics. And how many people realise that superpowers and international governance is an integral part of A Level Geography?
Belief in humanity
But all of us – inside and outside the world of formal education – can respond more profoundly too. We are all exposed to a daily barrage of stories about the world. We live in an era of 24-hour media access and rolling news, but how many of us are equipping our young people to survive, let alone thrive, in such a context? The concept of ‘doomscrolling’ – working through a depressing stream of bad news on a smartphone – was first used in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the pandemic, but it can now be applied to news about Ukraine, and our students will be at risk from the despair it engenders.
To counterbalance the sense of doom, we should encourage young people to take a ‘big picture’ of the world, both in terms of long-term trends and a global context. Whilst it is imperative that we consider some of the responses to the Ukraine crisis outlined above, it is also crucial that we draw young people’s attention to the better side of humanity: the side that, in recent decades, has led to a huge rise in global life expectancy, a massive reduction in infant mortality, a fall in malnutrition and levels of extreme poverty, the eradication of smallpox, and the near eradication of polio.
It’s also the collaborative and co-operative side of humanity that has given us a largely peaceful world since the end of the Second World War. Young people should be told that the rash actions of one dictator and his cronies must not undermine their faith in human nature that we will eventually overcome this challenge, just as we have overcome challenges in the past.
The power of education
In the longer term, we should remind ourselves just how powerful education can be: teachers and other citizens alike should continually be asking what should we teach, and more importantly, why are we teaching it? Over the last decade there has been a growing concern with what Gert Biesta calls the ‘learnification’ of education. He argues that education has primarily become a system of knowledge transmission, rather than as a way of preparing our students for roles as critically thinking, democratically informed, and active citizens in a changing world.
A reformed educational purpose may involve engaging young people in discussions about conflict escalation and resolution and involving them in opportunities for deliberative democracy. Teachers should have the courage to move away from being just facilitators of learning, into preparing our students to live in and shape a better – and more peaceful – world in the future.
None of us can change the world straight away, but whilst robust shorter-term responses attempt to disempower Putin and steer the crisis away from becoming a global catastrophe, we should harness the power of education to lay the foundations for the world we’d like to see.
How can we express a hopeful worldview without raising the heckles of the unconvinced?
Optimism breeds complacency.
This thought disturbs me, because I suspect that in many cases, it’s true.
As I encourage students and educationalists – and, let’s be honest, pretty much everyone I meet – to adopt a more hopeful worldview, I repeatedly emphasise that social progress* does not come naturally, and that we shouldn’t just sit back and wait for things to get better. Social progress is hard-fought and I believe that we all need to play a part in such a fight.
Sometimes, however, this nuance is lost, and some people will hear what they want to hear, which is a passive sense of ‘things are fine, and they are going to be OK’.
Nevertheless, I have convinced myself that so long as most of my audience takes away the message that only active hope – “a verb with its sleeves rolled up” as David Orr puts it – can lead to a brighter future, then this will somehow outweigh the minority who might walk away with a sense of complacency.
But it’s not just a fear of instilling complacency that stops me going full throttle on the Hopeful Education journey.
It’s also a fear of being labelled arrogant and insensitive.
Solnit and Pinker
Who would you rather have a chat with – Rebecca Solnit or Steven Pinker?
Solnit is an American author, columnist, activist and cultural historian, whose book ‘Hope in the Dark’ has inspired me and which I recommend to anyone interested in the journey towards a more hopeful education.
Pinker is a Canadian-American author, university professor and public intellectual, whose books ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ and ‘Enlightenment Now’ have also informed my hopeful worldview.
Both writers espouse hope for the future, but the former has managed to do so in a way that powerfully energises the reader into action which might go some way to the realisation of that hope, whilst the latter strikes a tone which can come across as overbearing, even to readers who might be sympathetic to his optimistic outlook.
It’s not that most of the evidential basis of Pinker’s work is shoddy (although some appears to be rather selectively included). He shares Solnit’s celebration of, for example, the decline of war and overt discrimination, and long-term improvements in human rights, health and living conditions for most people in most parts of the world. It’s something else.
Nathan Robinson is one of Pinker’s most outspoken critics, but even he gracefully states that “I actually agree with perhaps 80 percent or more of what is contained in Enlightenment Now, insofar as it is simply presenting statistics showing that crime has dropped and we are not presently in a world war, or making arguments for secular humanism and democracy.” He also acknowledges that Pinker includes plenty of caveats in his work (such as stating that progress is unevenly distributed between places and sometimes proceeds haltingly).
So, what is it about Pinker, and some other members of the so-called ‘new optimists’, which rankles with Robinson and so many others who may be characterised as coming from the left?
Robinson (2019) puts it thus:
“[Pinker] (1) staunchly defends the inequality produced by free-market capitalism, (2) is irrationally dismissive of the scale of the risks facing humankind, (3) trivializes present-day human pain and suffering, (4) whitewashes U.S. crimes and minimizes the dangers of U.S. military aggression, (5) repeats right-wing smears about anti-racist and feminist ideas, and (6) has a colossal ignorance about the workings of politics and the struggle necessary to achieve further human progress.”
In short, Pinker is politically naïve (or wilfully ignorant) and emotionally insensitive.
I have been enthused by many of Pinker’s writings, and I subscribe to his broad argument that, by and large, humanity has thrived in recent decades. However, his way of communicating is often prickly and patronising. Take, for example, his belief that “Everything is amazing… none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become” (pp283-4).
Mike Freiheit’s cartoon highlights the perils of promoting an optimistic message in complex social contexts:
Facts and stories
Tone is one thing. Content is another. And both need to be well judged in order to encourage the adoption of a more hopeful worldview.
If we can’t measure how trends in say, infant mortality, change over time, then we are intellectually hobbled, and we end up discussing matters without adequate evidence. As Solnit says:
“When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change” (Solinit, p.xvii)
Of course, we should be critical of gaps and biases in data, and aware of statistical blind spots and wilful misreporting or misreading of data. But without data, we cannot build a powerful case for a more hopeful future. Pinker, along with many other sources such as Our World in Data, and Gapminder, provide us with plenty of data with which to do so.
Nevertheless, stories are usually more persuasive than cold, hard, quantitative data, and they should also be part of the hopeful educator’s armoury. The anecdotes which feature in Solnit’s work are moving, affirmative and serve to foster a sense of empathy in the reader. Solnit recognises this:
“The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter, some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict-ridden” (p26). Solnit also recognises that “Stories move faster in our time” (p28) and that we need stories to retell previous victories:
“We need litanies or recitations or monuments to those victories, so that they are landmarks in everyone’s mind. More broadly, shifts in, say, the status of women are easily overlooked by people who don’t remember that, a few decades ago, reproductive rights were not yet a concept, and there was no recourse for exclusion, discrimination, workplace sexual harassment, most forms of rape, and other crimes against women the legal system did not recognize or even countenanced… People adjust without assessing the changes” (p.xix).
How to win friends and influence people
Nathan Robinson points to another flaw of Pinker’s approach: his patronising nature. He says that Pinker is not alone: like many other commentators, “They all want to explain before they’ve empathized, irrationally diagnose others’ irrationality, insist that their ideology isn’t an ideology while ours is.”
Battles of ideas are usually won on the basis of emboldening your allies and persuading the undecided, uninitiated, or indifferent. Pinker arguably fails on the second count. Rather than cultivating a broad church of optimists, he manages to insult and demean many people who could have been allies. This might be thanks to statements such as “People will complain about anything” (p60), or it might be thanks to more targeted assaults.
In contrast, Solnit seeks to broaden and embolden the hopeful coalition: she outlines
“this vast, inchoate, nameless movement – not a political movement but a global restlessness, a pervasive shift of imagination and desire – that has recently appeared in almost every part of the world. This, I think, has only just begun, and though it has achieved countless small-scale victories around the world, what its creativity and power will achieve is yet unimaginable” (p109)
Where does this leave hopeful education?
Both Pinker and Solnit offer valuable insights which may feed a more hopeful education.
As educators, we must make careful decisions not only in terms of what we teach about ‘progress’ and the future, but also in terms of the waysin which we deliver such content. Young people – like people of all ages – are sensitive and emotional, and they will respond better to messages of hope if the curriculum is designed and delivered in ways which respect this.
A carefully delivered hopeful curriculum must acknowledge the risks of complacency, arrogance and insensitivity, and meet them head-on. Infused with a humbler sense of hope, our young people will then be able to approach the challenges of local and global citizenship confidently and collaboratively.
* Of course, what constitutes ‘social progress’ is contested, and such discussions are beyond the scope of this blog post.
Pinker, S. (2019) Enlightenment Now London: Penguin
Delivered to students at Bradford Grammar School, Friday 1 Oct 2021
Before the assembly, I put a card and a pencil on a dozen seats along the middle row of the assembly hall, saying ‘Complete the sentence: “I am a citizen of…”.’ I had also asked my Year 12 tutees to do the same the previous day.
I wonder if anyone recognises this logo. Tell the person next to you if you think you know what it represents.
A week ago, there was a global series of concerts, from London to Lagos, from Seoul to Sydney, and in many other places in between. The event was called ‘Global Citizen Live’.
But what exactly does being a Global Citizen entail, and why do many people believe that we should develop a ‘Global Citizenship’ mindset?
Let’s start with this young person, Emma Raducanu.
Professor of Leadership Guido Gianasso wrote these words a couple of weeks ago about Emma:
A new tennis champion has emerged.
Emma’s father is Romanian. Her surname is Romanian and she speaks Romanian fluently. Hence she is considered Romanian by millions of Romanians. But Emma has never lived in Romania.
Emma’s mother is Chinese. She speaks fluent Chinese. Hence she is considered a Chinese hero by millions of Chinese.
Emma was born in Canada but has lived most of her life and trained in the UK. She holds dual British and Canadian citizenship. She is considered British by most Britons. But the British public that now celebrates her success is the same that voted Brexit with the objective to make it difficult for East Europeans such as Emma and her father to live in the UK.
At a time when many countries are going back to very ethnocentric models and policies, Emma is the best evidence that … we must embrace a geocentric mindset. Emma Raducanu represents the future of humankind.
A geocentric mindset? What does that mean? I am more familiar with another way of putting it. Global citizenship.
A global citizen is someone who is aware of, and seeks to understand, the wider world. They have responsibilities to the world as a whole, as well as to their community or country.
Global citizenship can sound woolly, and indeed our last prime minister, Theresa May, said in 2016 “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. Some people can see where she’s coming from: if you identify as a ‘global citizen’, they might say, you are abandoning any commitment to more local forms of identity.
But are these England supporters any less loyal to their local club? The names on their flags seem to show otherwise.
And are these British Lions any less loyal to England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland, even though they are playing for a bigger entity?
Which groups do you belong to?
I put cards on some of your seats in the central aisle. I also asked my Year 12 form members. I asked recipients to finish the sentence “I am a citizen of…” Here are some responses: [read out responses]
[Of the twelve cards which Year 7-9 students had, one said the school, some said their home town, a couple said Yorkshire, some said England or Britain, and one said Earth. My Year 12 form gave a similar spread of answers.]
All of these responses are valid. How can that be?
Because we can live with more than one identity.
Yuval Noah Harari points out that some fanatical creeds reduce people to single identities – e.g. fascism prioritises national identity over all others. But you can be a patriot without denying others their identity.
He also points out that “Human tribes… tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups… in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. … In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation”.
Harari points out that people still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital or a bomb, or how to measure things like time – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.
So if we agree with Harari that we already belong to the same civilisation, why do some people – like me – feel the need to promote global citizenship?
Well, yes, we already live in a cosmopolitan – or globally shared – condition. It’s inescapable.
But as Ulrich Beck pointed out, as a society, we have yet to develop anything like the cosmopolitan awareness necessary for society and the environment to thrive or to operate sustainably.
In other words, we live a globalised life, but we have yet to take full responsibility for our role in it.
We too often stick to old allegiances at the expense of other people and the environment. Let’s look at two examples.
In 2020, the developed nations promised to help less developed countries to vaccinate their populations. Gordon Brown, another ex-prime minister, insists that ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’. It would cost about £70bn to vaccinate the world – a lot of money. But the cost of not vaccinating the world, in terms of lost productivity, trade, livelihoods, and so on, is estimated to be 50 times bigger, at £3.3tn. But national self-interest and some degree of corporate self-interest keeps the world from the much cheaper global solution.
In 2009, the developed world, who industrialised and prospered on the back of a fossil fuel led economy, agreed to pay $100bn a year to developing countries to help them to adapt to a changing climate and to invest in alternative energy sources to help them not commit as much environmental damage as we did. But very little of this has been handed over. And again, the cost of meeting the challenge of climate change is much, much less than the social and economic cost of suffering its consequences.
These are massive global issues requiring huge shifts in our mindset. And you might be thinking they are beyond you.
But as you make your way in the world you can be part of this shift in our collective mindset.
What could you do now though?
Firstly, you could recognise that on top of your more local identities, you are a citizen of the world.
But is that enough? No, because I would argue that truly belong to a group entails responsibilities to that group.
So the second action you could take is to co-operate beyond your immediate circle. Nichola Raihani has written about co-operation in the animal and human world. It’s not a silver bullet to solve all ills, but it’s underappreciated. She points out that many people are misled by the word ‘selfish’ in the idea of the ‘selfish gene’: in most contexts, the best way to survive and thrive as an individual – to advance your ‘self’ – is to co-operate.
Thirdly, you could use your intellect to widen your horizons and find out more about the steps we’ll need to change our ways to deal with the global challenges of the 21st century, and you may then decide it’s time to act.
Not only should we ‘think global, act local’, but we should also ‘think global, act global’.
Let me finish with Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There is No Planet B’:
He says “If our sense of ‘tribe’ doesn’t embrace the whole world, we are going to be in for a very nasty time. … All of us need to be able to keep in mind our shared and overarching global tribe. We have to get our heads and hearts around the idea that we are in this together because that is the only way any of us can live well.”
[ For a copy of the slides and the scriptContact me on Twitter at @DavidAlcock1, @HopefulEd, or email me – alcock_david AT hotmail.com.
As ever, feedback is welcome. I recognise that there are different conceptions of global citizenship and that cosmopolitanism is a complex beast; I have also necessarily simplified the messages of the people mentioned!]
Realising that we need to make changes to the way we live is hard to accept on a personal level. It’s even harder on an organisational one, and it seems nigh-on impossible on a global scale.
But sometimes we need to change, and the current decade is one such time. Our climate is in a state of flux, ecosystems are struggling, and people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to these pressures. The scientific consensus on climate change is settled. There is no place for denialism. It is psychologically tough for us – residents of a wealthy and temperate country – to accept that our actions are causing so much damage, through incremental and invisible processes that mostly occur in far off places, to other people. But we must accept it. This is no time for ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
The need to change
However, I believe that we can accept the need to change, and that we can collectively make such changes. History shows that with a mixture of individual and organisational action, technological innovation and political leadership and regulation, humanity can combat environmental threats. Acid rain? Lead in petrol? CFCs and their damage to the ozone layer? Smog in our biggest cities? Threats to the Antarctic? We accepted the evidence, we raised awareness, we campaigned, we acted, we collaborated, we innovated, and we legislated. We can do it again in the case of the climate emergency.
But this time, the challenge is global, and it is much more deeply ingrained into our way of life. It is potentially so overwhelming that it has led to denial by some, to helplessness and eco-anxiety in others, and to many of us, it has led to procrastination.
A period of slowdown
We should not despair. As geographer Danny Dorling has written, the world is already entering a period of slowdown in many respects. We are coming to the end of the period of most rapid globalisation, the end of a period of pursuing economic growth at all costs, and, thanks to an all-time low global average fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman (and falling), we are on trend to reach a peak population of less than 11 billion by 2100. But to reach the most important slowdown of all – that of greenhouse gas emissions – we all need to play our part.
We have changed our way of life before. Consider the ban on smoking inside pubs, which was accepted as a way of life until just fifteen years ago, and laws about seatbelts, incandescent lightbulbs, and the adoption of facemasks in indoor and close-contact settings. At the time, these felt threatening or disruptive to many people, but in retrospect we came to accept these changes, and indeed we scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we didn’t change our ways earlier.
However, rapid change can be discombobulating, and it can turn us off the need to make any adjustments at all. So, it is time to embrace the word ‘transition’, to allow us to adjust our lives in an orderly and unthreatening way.
But we need to start the transition now. As the UK gears up to host the COP26 climate change conference in November, individuals, organisations, and governments need to make significant changes in the way we live in the next decade, as the first part of a process that will take the world to ‘net zero’ by 2050.
What might this mean for individuals? One of the key drivers of climate change is a meat- and dairy-rich diet. Of course, we could go ‘cold turkey’ (excuse the pun) by going vegan, but a gradual reduction in consumption of animal-based products would be more acceptable to more of us. Having meat-free Mondays in school canteens may be one way of achieving this in an organisational setting.
Stopping driving cars with combustion engines is another way to move to net zero, but it can be an overwhelming change in our habits. Cycling or taking public transport once a week can be a great way to start. Governments and organisations can also do more, by introducing more subsidies for electric bikes and cars, and public transport. I could go on and consider the necessary transitions in terms of housing, industry, energy, and so on.
There is No Planet B
Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There is No Planet B’, places great store in the need to slow down, consider our habits, and “spend more time working up visions of futures that we’d want and which are realistic enough to be exciting”. So, thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – will also make us shift towards a more sustainable world.
Recognising psychological barriers to change, and promoting the idea of transition, will give us a reasonable chance of meeting the goal of a sustainable future for our planet. Looking back from 2030, we will wonder why we didn’t start the transition earlier.
Postscript, 20 Sept 2021
I welcome all reasonable engagement with my writing.Some online response to this article (on Twitter) was supportive but some – from Paul Turner – was more critical. One part of Paul’s critique was that we need to transition faster than the article seemed to suggest, and I agree with this, but I wrote it for a broad readership, including people who may have not made many (or any) steps towards fighting the climate crisis. Governments and key corporate decision-makers need to have a more strident message rammed home.
Paul also critiqued my reference to the combatting of environmental threats, saying that “the examples of ‘successes’ aren’t [successes]”; however, I responded that I was careful to say that the problems weren’t ‘solved’ but were being ‘combatted’.
I agreed with Paul when he said that “a lack of understanding of the urgency and severity as well as just how simple and close the solutions are means society isn’t shifting as fast as it needs to” and I stressed that my article was meant to promote action and hope: once journeys towards a sustainable future begin, I hope they’ll gather momentum.
Excuse the immodesty, but I quite liked this sentence: “Thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – should make us shift towards a more sustainable world”. However, I wonder whether placing it at the start rather than towards the end of the piece might have set the general reader off in a more philosophical mood, allowing them to consider the reasons behind making the fundamental lifestyle changes which climate activists believe are necessary.
But overall, I am happy with the piece, and I implore as many writers, teachers and other people who deal with ideas to keep the topic of climate change alive in the public’s consciousness – not just from the point of view of bottom-up behaviour change, but also to nudge them to ‘pass it on’, and to create a groundswell for governmental and organisational action too.
Leaving school is simultaneously an exciting and worrying time for students. I was asked to deliver an assembly to our Year 13s on their last day in school to try to foster a sense of hope and positivity in them, and I decided to do this by:
Showing them how far the world had come in terms of access to education and some other metrics of ‘social progress’ in the past 200 years
Asking them to consider how far the world has yet to go on this journey
Encouraging them to play their part in a co-operative and socially beneficial future for the world
This was no small task in 20 minutes, but it was worth a shot. In an added twist, I took the assembly outside, using a megaphone, student volunteers, hazard tape, clothes pegs, and a fence!
The following is as near as possible to the script I delivered!
Good morning everyone! It’s time for a quiz. You are in a privileged position. You are about to leave school with good qualifications, and you are about to enter the next stage of your life, whether that be higher education, apprenticeships, or jobs. This morning, I’d like us to go global…
How many people in the world have attained a basic, primary, education?
My three volunteers are holding signs: 17%, 49% and 86%. Stand next to the volunteer who is showing the answer you think is correct.
[About half of those present chose 49%, and most of the rest chose 17%.]
Next, how many adults in the world do you think are able to read, to about the standard which would enable them to take a full role in society? Move places now if you wish to change.
[Most students stayed in the same place.]
Finally, the average 30-year-old man on this planet has spent ten years in education. How long has an average 30-year-old woman spent? Five, seven, or nine years?
[Over half of the students chose seven, with only a few choosing nine.]
Thank you volunteers and thanks to the rest of you for moving around.
It’s time for the answers.
Those who said 17% of people in the world had attained a basic, primary, education – well, you would have been right – if it was 1820. Those who said 49% – you would have been right, if it was 1950. The actual answer was 86%, and this also applies to the literacy question too.
And you can probably guess from those two questions that 30-year-old women have spent nine years in school, as opposed to ten for men.
Which direction is the world heading in?
These answers are not perfect – in an ideal world, we’d hope that all children would be educated to at least a primary level, and that all adults would be able to read. We’d also hope that there would be gender parity in terms of educational access. But the world has been moving in the right direction in terms of education. Not quickly – in fact, you might say, not quickly enough – but we do appear to be getting there.
Let’s at two more changes that have happened that may give you more faith in humanity as you go into the wider world.
Could I have three more volunteers?
[Three volunteers come up and stand in front of a tall fence, which has been turned into a large line graph; 0%, 50% and 100% labels have been affixed on the y-axis up to 2m height, and 1820, 1920 and 2020 labels have been affixed up to 4m across the x-axis.]
Let’s turn to poverty. Extreme poverty, in fact. Living on less than $1.90 a day, adjusted to allow for inflation. That’s less than is necessary to enable us to do much more than just survival. Could my three volunteers decide what they think this level was in 1820? [Volunteers discuss, then attach a long strip of red and white barrier tape on the fence with a peg at the % they think it was in 1820.]
It was 84%. So you’ll need to move it to 84%. Now how about 1920? [Let them decide, attaching the tape with pegs.] It had only dropped to 70%. [Move the tape if necessary.] 1950? [Ditto.] It had only fallen to 65%. And finally, 2018? [Ditto; my volunteers chose about 20%]. It had fallen to just 9%.
The UN has set a goal to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. The pandemic and entrenched inequalities mean that this date is now unlikely to be met, but it should be doable in the following decade. I’ll say it again – it’s not good enough – but again, looking how far we have come can give us scope for hope.
Please give a round of applause for our volunteers.
Finally, can I have three more volunteers. We’ll now look at child mortality – the number of children dying before their fifth birthday. An immensely sad statistic. [Repeat the exercise: the figures are 1820: 43%, 1920: 30%, 1950: 20% and 2019: 4%; my volunteers were closer this time.] Again, this isn’t where we could be by a long way, but looking at what we have achieved can give us hope.
Thank you again to our volunteers.
Faith in humanity
I hope you found that interesting. Here’s one more thing I’d like you to think about and respond to.
How many of you sometimes despair of humanity? Hands up… [I put mine up too.]
And how many of you take time out to celebrate humanity? Hands up… [fewer hands will probably go up!]
Why do we tend to celebrate humanity less often than we despair of it?
You may well have thought of this – and my geographers have certainly been involved in these discussions. It’s a mixture of the media – mainstream and social, your psychological biases, and perhaps even your education.
So could – and should – you start to celebrate what humanity has achieved?
Well, you may want to think about how you can measure its achievements. What should be our metrics? Should we measure achievements in terms of more people becoming healthy, wealthy and wise? In terms of liberte, fraternite and egalite? Or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? This is worth thinking about.
Let’s not kid ourselves – there are huge challenges facing the world, from climate change, inequality, and various forms of discrimination.
But this is where you come in.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
As you step out into the wider world, could – and should – you think about what role you can play in helping humanity to flourish, without sacrificing the planet we live on?
Firstly, it is worth recognising, as Isaac Newton did in a 1675 letter to Robert Hooke, that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Think of the giants – your predecessors – who have helped to achieve the huge leaps forward shown by today’s figures and graphs. Could you help humanity see further?
Then, consider what Walt Whitman wrote in ‘O Me! O Life!’: bear in mind…
“That you are here – that life exists, and identity. / That the powerful play goes on, and you many contribute a verse”.
So, the world is big, the future is daunting, and you will want to carve out your own path, to do what’s right for you and your loved ones. But you also have a role to play in a wider world, where you can help to continue these trends, and to carve out a more hopeful path for the world: to manage climate change, reduce racial discrimination, and to narrow the obscene inequality gap.
Can you do it? Are these just empty words?
No. they are not just empty words.
If I had stood here 400 years ago, and I asked my students to play their role in ending slavery, there would have been incredulity.
If I had stood here 130 years ago, asking you to play your role in gaining women’s right to vote, own property and vote, there would have been disbelief that these things could happen.
If I had stood here 40 years ago, saying that the Berlin Wall would fall, and that apartheid would collapse in South Africa – and these things seemed unlikely when I was still at school – would you have believed me?
How about 30 years ago, and I described the Internet?
Or five years ago, if I had said that polio – a disease which killed or injured millions of people a year – would now only be found in one country, what would have been your response?
These changes didn’t come about automatically. Through a complex mixture of processes, people made them. People like you.
Shaping a hopeful future
I’ll be issuing you with future timeline cards later, as a reminder that the future has not yet been made, and that you can shape a more hopeful, rather than a more fearful, future. You may want to keep it, to remind you of this.
So, your path may be varied or linear, it may be in business or healthcare, in development, politics or volunteering. You may well take your place in a civil society by voting, reading, and making informed decisions. But you can stand on the shoulders of giants, and you can contribute a verse.
Thank you, and Hoc Age! Just do it!
Feedback during the assembly and afterwards was positive; I hope you will be inspired to try this out, or at least to critique it!
Best wishes for summer to anyone who got this far in the post! David
What themes might reinvigorate the global dimension of geographical education?
How should geographical education engage with visions of the future?
These are the two concerns of this post, and they are intertwined.
The post mainly concerns geographical education, but the discipline is necessarily implicated. It is meant as a discussion generator rather than as an academic article, so please excuse any clangers and unattributed notions!
The Geography of It All
The immediate trigger for this post is ‘The Geography of It All’, a recent article by David Lambert (2021), which poses the central question of “[W]hat does geographical study bring to the table, especially in our deliberations with young people about contemporary predicaments and existential challenges[?]”.
It is an accessible and thought-provoking piece which is open about geography’s predicament, warts and all. So, for example, Lambert flags up geography’s physical-human divide, its involvement in ‘competing’ with history for students, and its complexity, which threatens to overwhelm the integrity of the discipline. But he is insistent in promoting the value of geography – not just for students, but for the future of planet earth. His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“An appropriate educational response to the human epoch needs to value geographical thinking: thinking that does not put human beings above (or even separate from) nature; that puts locales and nations into their global context; and which always seeks to understand interconnections. I believe reformed school geography, which seeks to enhance children and young people’s capabilities with regard to thinking about society and nature relationships and environmental futures, represents a profound educational response to the challenges of the human epoch.”
Lambert therefore sees global futures as integral to the future of geography. I concur, and I offer some considerations that might inform the global dimension of ‘a reformed school geography’.
The symbiosis of History and Geography
Lambert notes how philosophers of history are increasingly recognising the role of earth systems in the story of humankind. If the role of the ‘non-human’ is indeed becoming more salient in the discipline of history, then this raises the prospect that we might see this feed more explicitly into the school history curriculum in the years to come. We must hope that this will see an appreciation of the importance of human/non-human interactions and planetary limits rather than a re-emergence of environmental determinism.
Just as history is coming to terms with the environment, I argue that geography should be more comfortable with temporality. In a presentation to the recent GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference, I showed images of four two-page spreads from a current A Level textbook on the theme of human development. There were a handful of maps, a smattering of tables and photographs, but no graphs showing change over time – and little recognition of trends in the text either. This may be an extreme example, but could it be symptomatic of an underplaying of trends in some parts of the geography curriculum, particularly in global development? Might this go some way to explaining why many students are so surprised when they are confronted with evidence for long-term improvements in a wide range of indicators of social flourishing, as presented by resources from the Gapminder Institute, Our World in Data, and so on?
Lifting our eyes up
Alongside a consideration of how much attention geographers could spend on long-term trends, it is timely to consider to who we claim to be speaking on behalf of. Indeed, although Lambert’s article chimes with my thoughts on the subject’s global dimension, his comment that “we are browbeaten about the end of progress (when we can no longer assume our children will have ‘better’ lives than their parents)” deserves closer attention. His use of ‘we’ and ‘our children’ appears to be made from the view of someone in the global north – and yes, from that standpoint, there has arguably been a narrowing of horizons, a questioning of progress, and a growing sense of unease, driven by inequality and widespread economic stagnation.
However, taking into account a broad sweep of socio-economic measures from a range of well-respected IGOs, and notwithstanding stubborn levels of inequality within countries, living conditions for most people in the global south have seen continual improvements over at least the past seventy years (Roser, 2018; Rosling et al, 2018), meaning that, in most respects, many global citizens are living ‘better lives’ than their parents, and many will expect their offspring to live ‘better lives’ in their turn.
Drawing students’ attention to these achievements (see, for example, Alcock, 2019a, 2019b; Standish, 2020), should not be seen as being dismissive of remaining problems, or as being ignorant of the huge challenges of the Anthropocene. As Max Roser – the founder of Our World in Data – has written, “The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better. All three statements are true” (Roser, 2018; see Figure 1). There is indeed a great opportunity for a rich and far-reaching debate to be had, not only amongst geography educators, but also between students, on the theme of ‘progress’. This would draw on commentators who have responded critically to proponents of an ‘optimistic’ or, as Rosling would have it, a ‘possibilistic’ worldview (see, for example, Hickel, 2017; Paulsen, 2019a, 2019b; Aguilera, 2020).
A reformed school geography, I argue, should enable students to develop a more accurate and balanced evaluation of humanity’s achievements and failures over a prolonged period, and at a global scale. Such a worldview would not be uncritical of economic and social failings or of environmental crises. Instead, it would contextualise them. It would not underplay young people’s anxieties about the future. But it would embolden them to develop a sense of hope, as they would be able to draw confidence from previous successes – such as victories in human rights, reductions in child mortality, and increases in renewable energy supplies – with which to face the future. This balanced evaluation would also assist them – and us, as teachers – to pursue our shared geographical journey to explore the challenges of the Anthropocene.
My other reflections on Lambert’s post come under three broad themes.
Three global themes
With the above comments in mind, and in response to Lambert’s provocation, what might the global element of a ‘reformed school geography’ look like? I offer three very broad approaches. These are rough and ready, incomplete, overlapping, and they piggyback on the ideas of many others. Indeed, many elements are already taking place in classrooms – and remote learning environments – across the country! My main aim is to stimulate a reaction, to help geography stay relevant, engaging and attractive, but moreover, so that it is able to be more responsive to the challenges facing the human and non-human world.
Big Picture Geographies
Big Picture Geography would entail an increased awareness of significant historical trends in ‘human’ geography (using data visualisations such as those on Our World in Data), accompanied by a focus on graphicacy skills.
It would also harness the power of ‘big picture’ narratives. In a comment below Lambert’s piece, the historian Andreas Koerber identifies a new wave of large-scale popular historiography which he calls ‘Big History’ but whose contents are often deeply geographical (for example, Frankopan, 2015 and Diamond, 2011). This appetite for popular narratives which explore long-term changes over space exposes a vein of curiosity which geographers should leap at the opportunity to tap into. Geography teachers and students should take care not to be ‘prisoners of geography’ and look outside of our traditional literary domains.
Big Picture Geography should be informed by a decolonised approach to the subject: it should involve a wider range of perspectives, it should heed more voices, and it should acknowledge and problematise the long history of shifting power relationships.
For too long, Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) has been the go-to resource use theory for many geography teachers, myself included. However, although it assumes innocent actors combining to cause large-scale problems, in its application, it heightens misanthropic prejudices and a pessimistic view of human co-operation. It is time for a tilt towards co-operative geographies. These would give due recognition to evidence showing the fundamental decency and collective mindedness of most humans. Giving more saliency to Elinor Ostrom’s theories of small-scale co-operative management of common resources would not only be closer to what happens ‘on the ground’ in many cases, but it would restore some much-needed belief in humanity. Rutger Bregman’s Humankind (2020) is another weapon in the geographer’s armoury against cynicism: he draws on a wide range of historical evidence to argue that believing in human kindness and altruism can change how we think and act.
An examination of different scales of co-operation would be a great geographical project, and a way to build a conceptual bridge from the local to the global. It could draw parallels between small-scale community initiatives such as Friends groups and Green Flag projects, regional and national instances of altruistically pulling together (as shown by the high levels of adherence to social distancing rules in the Covid-19 pandemic), and international and global examples of co-operation, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
As Elise Boulding pointed out in 1988, IGOs and NGOs may be interpreted as aspects of a co-operative global civic culture which fosters ideals of global interdependence, sustainable development and peace – but how often do we refer to them as such? And how have geography teachers framed largely successful co-operative endeavours such as the European Union? Generations of students grew up thinking of the EU as creators of milk lakes and butter mountains and pesky imposers of fishing quotas, rather than as engines for peace and creators of social democratic norms. (Did Boris Johnson bribe David Waugh?)
A more realistic, historical, and evidence-based awareness of how humans pull together, adapt, and respond to resource challenges would also enrich secondary school geography. A move away from the discredited theories of Thomas Malthus to a more nuanced examination of the ideas of a range of thinkers, including
Ester Boserup, Kate Raworth and Ruth DeFries (see, for example, DeFries, 2014) would reveal different takes on the contentious issue of population/resource management. This might then soothe pupils’ fears of a ‘population explosion’ (which, according to one KS3 Geography video on the otherwise commendable Oak Academy, is still happening!) and instead open up a new sense of optimism for engaging with the future.
Reinvigorating the ‘futures dimension’ is vital in reformed secondary school geography. The groundwork for this has been laid down by David Hicks and others since the 1990s. The theme of the 2007 GA Conference was Future Geographies, and there is a significant bank of resources and skilled practitioners that could be drawn upon from the past thirty years or so. Francis Hutchinson (1996) is also a source of inspiration for geographers who are keen to get a handle on how to teach a futures-orientated curriculum. An intriguing and agenda-setting article by Hoffman et al (2021), based on action research, found that “a futuring approach to education… contributes to an enhanced sense of agency among students in dealing with wicked problems”.
Sitting squarely alongside futures education, but also drawing from the ideas of ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies, a reinvigorated and evidentially grounded ‘geography of hope’ should surely play a role in the education of future geographers: this would help students to evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and then, using these insights, help them to create a better world.
Climate change deserves a special place in the curriculum. As the ultimate global ‘wicked problem’ – and one which is not going away any time soon, it deserves a permanent, significant, and guaranteed place at the table, and it should be repeatedly visited in the classroom. The wording in the National Curriculum is not emphatic enough. Climate change is a touchstone environmental issue and one which the public view as being inherently geographical. It also allows for the development a panoply of hard and soft skills, as well as providing an opportunity to feed into ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies. Two of the most pressing needs are firstly for students to be able to have the skills to navigate the debate about ‘who is to blame’ for climate change, and secondly to appreciate the relative impact that different strategies might have on overcoming this challenge (see, for example, Project Drawdown): what use is recycling and turning lights off, if steel and concrete production continue unhindered, and animal products remain a mainstay of so many diets?
Planetary futures would also provide a suitable home for Late-covid and Post-covid geographies. The resource bank developed by Alan Parkinson (2020) is a treasure trove for educators which could be used to help conceive of a post-covid world. Applying some of the insights to other infectious diseases would help to bring up discussions in health geography which until now may, for many of our students, have been muted owing largely to the fact that diseases have mostly occurred ‘in other places’.
Bringing young people in
Lambert is passionate about developing children and young people’s capabilities; I agree, and they deserve a central and active role in the future of school geography, both as agents in the reformulation of the curriculum, and as citizens of the world it – and they – will help to shape. If we are bold enough to reform the way we approach the global dimension of school geography, then we should involve young people in our journey. Exactly how this could be done is beyond the scope of this piece!
As the world moves on, so must geography. If we accept that the Anthropocene is indeed a ‘game-changer’ (as Lambert refers to it on a comment in the thread below his article), we need to continue with the pivot to the global and take the futures dimension seriously too.
I welcome feedback on these ideas.
Aguilera, R. (2020) The Glass Half-Empty – Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century. London: Repeater
Script of an assembly delivered by Hermione Baines and David Alcock via voiceover Powerpoint to Bradford Grammar School pupils on Friday 15 January 2021. The slide set and notes are available upon request from @DavidAlcock1
Deep down, what is human nature? What are we really like underneath? Novelist William Golding explored this idea in his 1951 novel ‘The Lord of the Flies’. It tells the story of a group of well-brought up English schoolboys, shipwrecked on a deserted island. To start with, the boys organise themselves and try to have fun and wait for rescue. However, as the days go by, their rules break down. As fear takes over, they descend into appalling savagery and violence. We won’t spoil the ending for those of you have not yet read it, but lets just say it doesn’t end well – as this still from a film of the book suggests.
William Golding did not have a positive view of human nature – he said, ‘Even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it’ and ‘Man produces evil as a bee produces honey’.
Golding’s view of human nature is widely held. The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes considered what humans were like before we created ‘society’ – he argued that in a ‘state of nature’ human beings are driven by fear – fear of the other – our lives would be a state of permanent war and conflict – deep down, this is what we are.
As a historian, it’s easy to find examples of humans being driven by fear, greed, and hatred to do terrible things to each other; it sometimes doesn’t seem to take much to turn apparently civilised human beings into aggressive, cruel creatures. Is this what humans, deep down, are like?
This is the uninhabited island of ‘Ata. It is 100 nautical miles from the main island of Tonga, which is itself 2000 nautical miles east of the Australian mainland. What does it have to do with Golding – or indeed Hobbes?
Well, in 1966, Peter Warner, an Australian man in his 20s, sailed his boat to the island, which had been deserted for over a hundred years. But he saw fire – a sign of life – and when he drew closer he found six boys. These six boys told him that they had ‘borrowed’ a boat from the main island of Tonga, they’d got caught in a storm, and eventually landed on Ata, fifteen months previously. The boys were taken back to the mainland, where their families had given them up for dead.
Six boys, on an island – a recipe for disaster, right? Rivalries, fighting, bullying? No. Quite the opposite.
The boys – seen here in a reunion photo with Captain Warner a few years after the incident – had actually set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.
While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.
Captain Warner wrote in his memoir: “Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.”
One example doesn’t prove much. But it got Dutch author Rutger Bregman thinking: was Golding’s book symptomatic of a negative view of human nature which doesn’t really reflect how most humans actually behave?
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that in a state of nature, we are naturally cooperative beings: our essence is to work together. But Bregman argues that Rousseau’s message has been overwhelmed by a more cynical image of humanity, which has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research – and perhaps even in education?
Bregman argues that this distrust has been driven by individualism, an increasingly overdramatic media, and politicians keen to get the support of voters who are scared of ‘other people’ (does this remind you of a certain US president?).
Bregman has a hopeful message – he thinks we think ourselves worse than we really are, and this is what causes the problems because we assume that people are bad, when the vast majority of people are in essence good at heart – he asks us to take a positive view of the world.
We have been thinking that recent events – particularly the way people have coped with the pandemic – support this hopeful view of humankind. Despite some people behaving selfishly with no regard for the welfare of their fellow human beings, behavioural scientists suggest that the vast majority of people have been cooperating for the greater good, wanting to help each other and sticking to the rules, even when they could get away with breaking them.
As Bregman says, We live on a planet where people are deeply inclined to be good to one another. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. Its time for a positive view of humankind’.
[Inspired? Read about Hopeful Education – whose mission is to encourage young people to ‘evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and create a better world’ – in this post, and follow @HopefulEd on Twitter.]
Humankind by Rutger Bregman (2020) is published by Bloomsbury.
Welcome back, and we trust you have refuelled and are ready for another journey through the geographies of the air! Part one of this two-part series, where we explored air’s importance in creating a sense of place, air as a medium, and some cultural geographies of air, can be found here.
In the post below, we explore the militarisation of airspace and aerial intensification, we discuss how much attention air might deserve in the future, and we take a brief look at whether there is room in the school curriculum for a deeper consideration of the geographies of air.
Militarised air power, much like air pollution, often disrespects borders. The shooting down of commercial airliners is one obvious example. PS752 and IR655 in Iran, MH17 in Ukraine, KAL007 in Russia. This list is not exhaustive. It is important to remember that it is not only rebel groups or insurgent governments who shoot down airliners – IR655 was downed by the US Navy.
Battles in the air are rarely fought over territory. They are strategic endeavours or shows of power and involve a significant amount of what could be construed as ‘willy waving’. Long-range missions by Russian aircraft venture close to the airspace boundaries of the USA or its NATO allies, and elicit a response from fast jets like those in the RAF’s QRA squadron. American ‘spy planes’ regularly undertake 30+ hour sorties from US the East Coast to the Baltic and back again, supported by aerial refuelling tankers, essentially just to show they can. Airspace in the Alaskan region has seen a lot of this type of military activity recently, with clear geopolitical links to both nations’ ambitions in the Arctic.
Concerns have been raised for decades about militarised urbanism (see, for example, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz), but these have risen in more popular consciousness recently with the targeted use of military resources in urban environments becoming more commonplace. Low-flying helicopters, operated in a manner incompatible with accepted safe procedures, were used this year to disperse BLM protesters in New York City and Washington DC, as shown in this video: https://www.nbcnews.com/video/watch-helicopters-hover-low-over-protesters-in-washington-84223557542.
Equally though, drone technology has contributed to beneficial and humanitarian developments. The inclusion of UAV’s in medical supply chains can be life changing in rural areas. Drones can revolutionise the delivery of blood, medicines and vaccines to remote health facilities where land-based transport is hard to come by (see Fig.1 and https://www.doveair.org). For some countries, especially where roads are scarce and of poor quality, UAV’s may be the only way to deliver a refrigerated COVID-19 vaccine to rural and isolated areas before it thaws.
UAV’s can also be used for GIS or mapping, assisting in the creation of high-quality maps and 3D models which can be used to assist with humanitarian disaster response or climate science, amongst other things (http://www.sensefly.com/industries/case-studies).
The increasing usage of drones for deliveries may herald a new ‘aerial intensification’, bringing into play considerations of aerial congestion, noise pollution, collisions, and risks to other animate and inanimate objects. These issues will be even more important to contemplate when humans are brought into the mix: ‘urban air mobility’ (UAM) and the concept of the ‘flying car’ have prompted social concerns relating to airspace. With UAM, this includes the ability to use aerial transport to opt-out of shared public space – see, for example: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2020/05/28/481148/flying-cars-will-undermine-democracy-environment/
The development of UAM will move urban airspace into the regulatory lens of urban planning. Decisions around land use will incorporate airspace as an important aspect of the city and its transport network rather than simply as empty space.
Aside from pollution and climate change, understanding the ways that humans interact with the air may in the near future be a declining concern, as environmental regulations, moral concerns (such as voluntary scaling back and ‘flight shaming’), and the growth of high speed rail lines, especially in emerging economies, may stymie the growth of flights.
Some commentators suggest that hyperloops (see Fig. 2) (or perhaps maglevs and vactrains, for those of us who approve of the technology but not of Musk’s assessment that “Individualised mass transit is the future”) may reduce intra- and even inter-continental travel by air. The massive drop in air traffic thanks to covid-19 related restrictions and fears may accelerate this decline. This downturn may be a temporary one, but will we see a shift away from more ‘superfluous’ flights such as for meetings and job interviews? Conference calling capabilities have improved and have become commonplace. Also, an increase in virtual reality technology could mean that such remote meetings might begin to feel more visceral.
On the other hand, airspace may retain its importance, as a greater focus on airspace management (including next-generation air traffic control and restricting contrails) is one of the best tools to reduce aviation emissions in the medium-term. Along with drones and urban air mobility, this will require us to start changing how we use airspace. In these respects, airspace is not a declining concern.
Moreover, continuing economic development in emerging and developing countries will almost certainly lead to an increase in flights; see, for example, the growth of the China-Africa airlink, which will override the ‘first world’ trends of flying less. And although it could be a long time away, the widespread adoption of more environmentally friendly forms of aviation may also lead to a busier aerospace.
Air and outer space
Although ‘air’ is not synonymous with ‘outer space’, there is a continuum between the two, and geographers should note that control of outer space has risen up the geopolitical and business agenda – here, one thinks of Space X, the renaissance of missions to Mars, the United States Space Force and an emboldened China, whose most recent mission, Chang’e 5, has reinvigorated debate about lunar missions. There is an overlap here with next-generation airspace management, as satellite-based aircraft tracking has enabled this.
Air in the curriculum
The Key Stage 3 national curriculum programme of study for geography explicitly focuses on “the location of globally significant places – both terrestrial and marine” (Department for Education, 2013: 1) but there is no mention of the air. And whilst contested maritime boundaries feature in all A Level specifications, only limited attention is given to geographies of the air that are not specifically physical. One exception is Edexcel’s mention of air power in its Superpower unit, and even then, it is only made explicit in the context of the costs of maintaining such power:
“7.9 Existing superpowers face ongoing economic restructuring, which challenges their power … b. The economic costs of maintaining global military power (naval, nuclear, air power, intelligence services) and space exploration are questioned in some existing superpowers.” (Edexcel, 2016: 53)
Stretching the definition of air (a mixture of gases that surround a planet) to include the gaps between planets and the definition of geography (study of the earth) to embrace considerations of interactions between humans and outer space has led to an increased range of areas for geographical study, for example the governance of space as a contested ‘commons’ does feature in some resources aimed at A Level students.
Of course, the geography curriculum, especially at secondary school level, is already crowded… so can it afford to take it on?
We feel that geographers should spend some time contemplating how the issues that we discuss above are interdependent and how we might conceive of a more robust and wide-ranging geography of the air that takes it beyond its home in physical geography and meteorology.
In an age of a globally prevalent virus which cannot be seen by the naked eye, it is time for an increased awareness that the invisible is crucial in geography. The air is a neglected aspect of our discipline which is ‘hiding in plain sight’.
“Strategy and international politics are influenced strongly by geography”
This is the tantalising and prescient first sentence of Stefan Possony and Leslie Rosenzweig’s article ‘The Geography of the Air’ (1955: 1). However, within a few lines, it becomes clear that the promise of an examination of the complex relationships between power and aerial geographies is snuffed out, and the remainder of the piece concerns itself with a narrow conception of the geography of air:
“The geography of the air… is the study of the physical differences of the air in various locations and altitudes” (p.1)
This definition, whilst concerning itself with a worthy and longstanding field of study within physical and environmental geography, is, ironically, claustrophobic and airless in its failure to conceive of a wider geography of air.
Below, we sketch out some of the contours of the existing geographies of air and ponder the extent to which human geography has neglected the potentialities of exploring this theme. We do not pretend to have carried out an exhaustive study of pre-existing materials or to have employed academic rigour; we merely offer this up as a ‘think piece’, and we welcome feedback!
The human scale – air, odours, and place
“There’s something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It’s a little world of its own down there, with its own strange winds and weather systems, its own eerie noises and oily smells” (Bryson, 1995)
In this vivid description of the London Underground, Bill Bryson takes the reader’s mind’s eye (or is it their mind’s nose?) to an anonymous platform, where they can easily imagine themselves contemplating the history and complexity of the capital’s underbelly.
This snippet also illustrates how a place can be represented multi-dimensionally. We understand why vision might be the sense that geographers first rely on when trying to understand a place, but sound and smell, let alone the physical sensation of moving air on the skin, deserve more of a look-in, if you excuse the pun. Mustiness and mildew can indicate that a place is uncared-for, abandoned, and past its prime. The stench of human and animal excreta can build on this impression. Smells and noises can be interesting, evocative, and even exciting too.
Indeed, there has been a growing trend to document and explore sensory landscapes in the early years of the 21st Century: psychogeography has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, for example through the writings of Will Self, Iain Sinclair, and Robert MacFarlane. Reflecting on the positionality of these and other writers, there have also been interesting and crucial discussions about dominant ‘gazes’ in an era in which Geography is finally beginning to open itself up to an authorship more representative of humanity.
Nevertheless, researchers, urbanists, artists and writers have woken up and smelt the coffee: lived realities are not just about dry statistics and about what is seen, but they are also about the fuller sensory experience of a place, including odours and sounds. A lovely discussion of ‘The sensory landscape of the city’ took place on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed in January 2018 and is available here.
It should also be remembered that visual and aural impressions of a place are also transmitted through the medium of air. Accusations that this is stretching the importance of the air too far are easily countered by pointing out that these impressions are affected by atmospheric conditions – for example, if an observer waits for the cloud to clear before taking a photograph of a Lakeland mountain, then they will be misrepresenting the reality of the place when it was shrouded in fog. How often do geographers wait until rain, fog, or wind has passed before recording what a place ‘looks’ like?
The role of air as a medium has of course been crucial in the covid-19 pandemic, and beyond the devastating medical and economic impacts of the virus and attempts to combat it, it also opens several research avenues for geographers, from the impact of ‘social distancing’ on hospitality venues and desire lines in parks to the way it has focused attentions on conceptions of ‘fresh air’.
The economic and cultural, and environmental value of air
Geographers are aware of the importance of views and sight lines in both urban and rural areas. Aesthetics and place attachment are both tied up in these considerations. Recent consideration of ecosystem services has heightened the importance of views, especially as monetary value is placed upon what can be seen from workplaces, homes, sites of leisure and consumption, and in the journeys in between such places. A pleasant view, for example, of greenery, can boost property values. A consideration of the geographies of air must also pay attention to air pollution; such pollution, even more so than water pollution, does not respect borders.
Cultural Geographies of flight
The ability to see the earth from the air was undoubtedly a feat which re-oriented understandings of world Geography. With the modern ease of accessibility to satellite imagery, the ‘view from above’ is something to which people have become all too accustomed. In the not too distant past, this new perspective on the planet revolutionised how people understood the world and their place in it.
The lyrical writings of Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a pilot for Aéropostale in the early 1900’s, tend towards awe when describing the experience of flight and the viewpoint it afforded on landscapes passing below. They offer valuable insights into how flying changed our conception of the world:
“Even if a road does venture across a desert, it twists and turns to enjoy the oases […] Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line.” (Saint Exupéry, 1939, p.33).
The enduring influence of Saint Exupéry’s work highlights how the air has taken on a role as the location in which cultural works are situated.
Alongside wonderment though, geographers ought to consider the extent to which aviation in this period contributed to enshrining colonial ideologies and mindsets. Flying was an activity reserved for colonial elites and being up in the air was assumed as a position of superiority; their subjects (both the human and natural) could be surveilled below. Airline advertisements of the time, like the following (Figure 2), reflected this.
Figure 2: 1919 advertisement for Latécoère (the predecessor to Aéropostale) – regarded as the world’s first airline route map. Moroccans are pictured almost worshiping the arrival of an aircraft resplendent in French insignia
In Part 2, we will mull over aerial militarisation and intensification. We will also consider what is taught, and what might be taught, about the geographies of air, before asking you to contemplate the ‘place’ of geographies of the air in geographical imaginations and curricula.
David Alcock and Harvey Logan
Bryson, B (1995) Notes from a Small Island (HarperCollins)
Ovenden, M and Roberts, M (2019). Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design. (Penguin)
Possony, S T and Rosenzweig, L (1955) The Geography of the Air in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 299, pp1-11
Saint Exupéry, A (1939; Translated 1991). Wind, Sand and Stars. (Penguin)