Nine things that climate change and human progress have in common

The bumblebee

Source: Trounce [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Pause for a second and consider these short ‘earth stories’:

  • A Nigerian child is vaccinated against polio
  • The bumblebee’s habitat declines in Europe and North America
  • A sesame farmer in Tanzania buys his first bicycle
  • A British farmer decides to plant some grapevines

These kind of ‘earth stories’ rarely make the headlines.  Yet they are all part of the unfolding history of our planet.  Together with millions of other ‘earth stories’, they give us an insight into how we are interacting with our habitat in two key areas: climate change and human progress.

Understanding climate change and recognising the progress made by humankind are central to the future of our planet and of our species.  But neither gets the attention that they deserve.

But why have they both failed to get traction in the public’s consciousness?  The reasons are manifold:

  • Their manifestations are incremental. The 24-hour news cycle, human discourse, and the fast-moving world of business tend to favour more sudden, attention-grabbing events and narratives rather than drawing our attention to trends which occur over decades (such as climate change) or even centuries (such as human progress).

 

  • Both are complex in terms of their causes and implications. This makes them hard to comprehend, and so it is very tempting for individuals, governments, businesses, educational establishments, and other organisations, to shy away from an in-depth understanding of them.  Complex challenges – also known as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973) – have been recognised as a key focus for modern and post-modern societies – but the hard work in translating this into practical measures has yet to begin in earnest.

 

  • ‘Human progress’ and ‘Climate change’ are both contested terms. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty in pinning down my worldview in relation to progress, but of course even the term ‘progress’ is a difficult one to pin down:  What spheres of ‘progress’ should we be considering?  Whose ‘progress’ should we have in mind?  How can it be measured?  I have referred to the work of Steven Pinker in previous posts and I believe that he does a good job of summarising ‘progress’:

“What is progress?  … Most people agree that life is better than death.  Health is better than sickness.  Sustenance is better than hunger.  Abundance is better than poverty.  Peace is better than war.  Safety is better than danger.  Freedom is better than tyranny.  Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination.  Literacy is better than illiteracy.  Knowledge is better than ignorance.  Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness.  Happiness is better than misery.  Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”  (Pinker, 2018: p.51)

However, others will disagree on what exactly constitutes progress, or will want to place different weightings on its constituent measures.

 

  • Obtaining an accurate and unbiased verdict on their current status is difficult. This is the case firstly because both spheres are politically sensitive and therefore most messages come to us via media which are subject to their own biases. Also, even though there exists a wide body of evidence to help us to reach conclusions, this body is so wide, and so dynamic, that it is difficult to synthesise.

 

  • Both have vested interests who find it hard to accept nuances and exceptions to their stated positions on one side or another. This means that there is considerable muddying of the water around the concepts. For the more outspoken and controversial proponents of human progress, such as Matt Ridley, the picture seems exasperatingly clear – the world is getting better – look at the proof!  But inadequate consideration is still given to the environmental (and social) problems caused by some of the progress made by humankind.  For many climate change activists, it is anathema to concede any benefits of climate change, whereas many sceptics, who have only just conceded that anthropogenic climate change is real, struggle to admit that it will harm the world’s poor more than the rich.

 

  • Both seem to escape easy academic categorisation. Which discipline – if any? – should take human progress under its wing?  And what about climate change?  Universities have led the way with interdisciplinary departments and projects relating to climate change, but at secondary education level, it is only recently that disciplines outside of Geography have begun to explore it.  Meanwhile, human progress is such a contested term and covers such a wide range of human experiences that it has an even more diffuse academic grounding – and as it is often stigmatised (with, admittedly, some good reason) as being a hobby horse of the right, then it is in danger of being shunned by the academy in favour of more fashionable and ostensibly more socially acceptable concerns.

 

  • Both seem to have been side-lined by successive governments. In the UK, should the crucial task of tackling climate change be given its own department of government?  Or should it belong to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?  Either would seem to be sensible – but it is in fact the responsibility of The Department of Energy and Climate Change – two areas which have historically been antagonistic in their priorities.  What about human progress?  Should responsibility for this lie solely with the Department for International Development?  If so, who is responsible for tracking human progress in areas that DfID is not active in, and what about human progress in the UK?

 

  • Neither issue – particularly human progress – has gained much political traction. Many voters are much more likely to prioritise issues that are closer to home than to pay attention to global issues, especially if they are either misinformed or uninformed about their key roles in the future of the planet.

 

  • Both terms lead to reactions that are psychologically complex. Just one example is the cognitive dissonance experienced from holding the same two views simultaneously, such as ‘a holiday would do me good’ and ‘flights are one of the most damaging actions that can be taken in terms of carbon emissions’. Sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about the deeper consequences of one’s actions than to confront them, question them, and act accordingly.  In the context of climate change, George Marshall (2014) has written about the psychological mechanisms that allow us to know something is true but to act as if it is not.

 

Concluding thoughts

How and when will these barriers be overcome?  When the twin UK obsessions of Brexit and Trump pass, as surely they will, who will set the tone for future social and environmental discourse?

When will a tipping point be reached in either sphere?  When will the default position of anyone (or indeed any algorithm) considering any significant action be to consider the impact of that action on climate change?  When will there be widespread acceptance of the generally positive trends seen in terms of human progress?  As ever, your thoughts are welcome.

David

Bibliography

Marshall, G (2014) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury)

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)

Ridley, M (n.d.) www.rationaloptimist.com

Rittel, H and Webber, M (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ in Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp155-169: https://web.archive.org/web/20070930021510/http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf

Educating for Hope – how can educators overcome the Perils of Perception?

the-perils-of-perception

Figure 1: Cover of Perils of Perception

Source: http://launch.theaureview.com/books/book-review-bobby-duffys-the-perils-of-perception-is-a-fascinating-study-into-general-ignorance/

Bobby Duffy, in his 2018 book ‘The Perils of Perception’, put forward a tentative set of proposals for how we could ‘manage our misperceptions’.  These are summarised below, together with thoughts as to how we could apply them to geographical education in the context of aiming to achieve a fact-based, optimistic worldview.  Firstly it is worthwhile quoting from Duffy’s preamble:

“[W]e’re not just wrong about the world because our media or politics are misleading us.  Our ignorance and misperception of facts are long-standing, and they persist in very different conditions over time and across countries” (Duffy, 2018: 231).  Although, tellingly, he goes on to say “While we shouldn’t think there was ever an age of perfectly neutral information, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: we’re travelling towards a world where disinformation has more opportunity to be created and travel faster” (p237).

Duffy’s suggestions

Duffy is keen to stress that “there is no magic formula to deal with our misperception” (p248) but also asserts that there are real and practical things that we can do.  These begin with points related to how we think as individuals, before moving through to society-based actions

1. Things are not as bad as we think – and most things are getting better. This chimes with the whole gist of Factfulness.  In Geography, we could set the ‘Ignorance test’ from Gapminder to our students; or perhaps when setting the context for teaching hazards, we could use graphs which show the deaths from hazards decreasing (we do this at my school).  Paul Turner (@geography_paul) has created a scheme of work based on Factfulness, which has its own ‘rules of thumb’ for those who wish to obtain a fact-based worldview (Rosling et al, 2018).  Infographics such as Figure 2 could be placed on walls of classrooms or handed out to students at the start of a unit on development – and then discussed.  I have also shown all or part of the two hour-long documentaries, as well as some of the thought-provoking YouTube videos and TED talks, which are found on the Gapminder website.

two-centuries-world-as-100-people

Figure 2: The World as 100 People over the last two centuries

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/

2. Accept the emotion but challenge the thought.  As humans we are mentally predisposed to be affected emotionally by certain themes, such as human tragedies, but we should temper our immediate emotional reactions with more deliberative, contemplative thought.  This is more difficult – but as educators we could, for example, set more exercises involving the deeper interrogation of images – such as ‘layers of inference’ activities, which, as Margaret Roberts points out, are common in historical education but which have only recently been adopted by a groundswell of geographers (see Figures 3a and 3b).  For example, students could be given this image…

migrant lorry original

Figure 3a Man and truck in Calais, 2014

Source: Philippe Huguen / Getty, via https://www.newsweek.com/migrant-lorry-drops-more-double-britain-483218

…and then asked to question it using the following template:

layers of inference blank

Figure 3b Layers of inference framework

Source Margaret Roberts / GA via https://slideplayer.com/slide/4055725/

3. Cultivate scepticism, but not cynicism. Most of us will have come across the inveterate cynic in our classroom – and even our staffroom – who claims that “climate change is not real”; “poor countries will stay poor – the people are lazy”.  Cynics tend to be oppositional and have a negative mindset.  Scepticism, on the other hand, is a useful skill to cultivate – we should constantly question the veracity of the information we receive and encourage our students to do so to.  ‘Layers of inference’ photo interpretation activities are one way of achieving this – and why not apply the ‘layers of inference’ grid to other kinds of sources – such as newspaper headlines, cartoons, emails, speeches, etc?

4. Other people are not as like us as we think. This is not to say that we should not empathise with others – rather, this means that we should not assume that ‘all we see is all there is’.  In Geography, we should continue to seek out opportunities to see things from others’ points of view.  Decision-making and Issues-based exercises could assist us in this task, as could using resources such as ‘Dollar Street’ (https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix – see Figure 4) and using real diary extracts and video footage from people living in other parts of the world.

dollar street

Figure 4 – Dollar Street

Source: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/static.dollarstreet.org

5. Our focus on extreme examples leads us astray. There are many examples where we stereotype people, often assuming the worst – the news does not help us in this regard.  As Duffy says, “We’re naturally drawn to extreme examples, which means that true but vanishingly rare events or populations take up more of our mental capacity than they deserve” (p241)  When asked about migration, our students (or indeed, our more populist-inclined politicians) may well think about people on boats in the English Channel without putting these flows (in the realm of a few hundred a year) in the context of economic migration (hundreds of thousands a year).  Judicious use of proportional symbols, graphs and maps could help us to counter this tendency.

6. Unfilter our world. It is well known that online, we are to a large extent a slave of algorithms: we live in a ‘filter bubble’.  We reinforce this by ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ opinions: this results in an ‘echo chamber’ effect.  Governments and corporations have their role to play in dissolving these filters, but so have educators.  Using old favourites like ‘devil’s advocate’ debates could be used more often, and pupils could be given a range of media articles to compare, on issues such as migration and population growth.

7. Critical, statistical and news literacy are going to be difficult to shift, but we can do more.  The task will not be easy: “we won’t be able to teach the human out of our kids, and critical thinking is not a universal guard against misconceptions” (p 244) – but just because a task is difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted: Duffy refers to addressing news literacy as “becoming the social, cultural and political challenge of our time” (ibid).  As educators we need to continue the fight against the trend of transmitting knowledge, and instead increase the proportion of our time dedicated to critical thinking, psychology, and the study of statistics – and these should be delivered by more than one subject.  The breadth of subjects our students follow should also be widened:

  • We should encourage the growth of AQA’s Extended Project Qualification – rather than restricting it to the most able students, this should be offered more widely; 60% of its marks come from the student engaging with the process of its completion, for example by undertaking a critical literature review
  • Schools and colleges should look again at offering Critical Thinking at A Level – and it is a shame that OCR’s Thinking and Reasoning Skills Level 2 Award was withdrawn last year: with media literacy and fact-based education becoming more important, surely the time has come for a respected and well-promoted replacement?
  • The International Baccalaureate is another way of encouraging students to develop their critical, statistical and news literacy, via its Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay components
  • The IB’s Middle Years Programme may be another way of developing critical and reflective – as well as global-minded – students

8. Facts still count, and fact-checking is important. It may sound trite, but facts should be used carefully to back up arguments.  I say carefully, because, as Duffy points out, the academic literature on the use of facts to correct misperceptions shows very mixed results.  In the classroom, in assemblies like this one and this one, and in presentations, I refer to several ‘killer’ facts and graphs, many of the latter gleaned from Max Roser’s thorough, contemporary, and compelling website ‘Our World in Data’ (see Figure 2).  The optimist in me still likes to think that these facts will do the trick.  But I am also aware that “humans naturally look for confirming information, and discount disconfirming information”.  Nevertheless, I am heartened by the existence of cognitive dissonance: with enough evidence, initially unconvinced people will switch, as the ‘pain’ of persuading themselves to accept their original opinion despite the volume of evidence against it outweighs the ‘pain’ of admitting to themselves that they were wrong.

So how can we adapt this insight into our practice as educators?  We can instill the importance of fact-checking throughout a child’s education, we can pick up on misconceptions, and we can pick up on students who quote inaccurate information.  I remember setting a ‘cover page’ activity to Year 9 students on the topic of Hazards and a handful of them mindlessly typed ‘tsunami’ into a search engine, and the first image was this digitally altered image (Figure 5).  This provided a great opportunity to discuss the reliability of sources.

fake tsunami

Figure 5 Digitally altered photo of a tsunami

Source: I am unable to attribute this to its original creator, but this was found at

http://jimdrake.blogspot.com/2011/01/technology-tsunami-hits-snyder-texas.html

A fun activity to make students sit up and take notice of inaccuracies is to find a mistake in a textbook and offer a reward to the first student who notices it.  This could also be applied to those who notice mistakes in your own worksheets.  Peer marking for factual errors can also help to remove any stigma which you fear you might be getting as a ‘nit-picking pedant’!

Moreover, teachers should aim to ‘get in there first’ – by teaching accurate world views in primary schools and in the early years of secondary education, rather than leaving until later in the system, when many students following certain subjects may not get to be aware of this all-important life skill.

9. We also need to tell the story. The use of narratives and anecdotes to persuade others of a point of view is as old as rhetoric itself.  They have a power over the human mind that pure facts struggle to muster.  When teaching immigration, for example, it is important to focus on real life stories as well as using quantitative data about the scale of net migration or its economic impacts.  Examples abound, and I use a Guardian Weekend magazine article to personalise migration and to show its range; other resources include https://www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk/

10. Better and deeper engagement is possible. This is where we move from taking evolutionary steps to revolutionary changes!  Duffy mentions that more informed deliberation could help to shift misperceptions and reduce ignorance – and one idea from Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) is to hold national ‘deliberation days’ where citizens would be invited to participate in public community discussions.  People would gather in groups of 500 or so to hear presentations and ask questions of experts or representatives.  Attendance would be incentivised, and the events would take place on national holidays, perhaps prior to an election.  Could schools adapt this idea and have ‘deliberation days’ on set topics, rather than leaving debating and philosophising to a self-selecting crowd of confident students?  This would be a step beyond ‘mock elections’ and it could give ‘pupil councils’ a boost so that they could integrate national and global issues – such as plastic pollution or media bias – into their deliberations.  Senior members of corporations, universities and, yes, schools, have ‘away days’ to deliberate on important issues – so why should we not extend this to pupils?  Duffy has trialled these with government and other groups and has seen people change their ways of thinking.

I am conscious that my recent seven-minute assembly on global progress may have given students – and teachers – a momentary pause to think about their worldview, but I know that a fuller programme of engagement will be needed to reach a ‘tipping point’ in attitudes.

One other insight that Duffy makes is to draw our attention to the work of Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society.  A summary of his steps to convincing others of the errors of their beliefs is:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange
  2. Discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum)
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately
  4. Show respect
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews

Source: Shermer (2017)

I am immensely grateful to Professor Duffy for giving me a structure on which I can build my deliberations for ‘Educating for Hope’.  I hope to build on these in the future and, as always, I welcome further contributions.

David

Ackerman, B. and Fishkin, J. (2005) Deliberation Day (Yale)

Duffy, B. (2018) The Perils of Perception (Atlantic)

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

Shermer, M. (2017) ‘When Facts Backfire’ https://michaelshermer.com/2017/01/when-facts-backfire-why-worldview-threats-undermine-evidence/ accessed 18 January 2019

Name that worldview

Name that viewpoint! (Read the article to the end to find out the answer)

Source: TomasEE [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

What keeps you awake at night?  For me, sometimes it’s thinking about the next day’s lessons, sometimes it’s the caffeine from an evening cup of tea, and sometimes it’s the Private Eye crossword.  That’s the way I roll.  On a slightly more profound level, I do wonder how to conceptualise what kind of worldview I stand for and advocate.  At some point, this conceptualisation requires a name.  Here are my options.  What do you think?

A fact-based worldview

I use the term ‘fact-based’ frequently – and who would argue against such a premise?  However, it doesn’t seem energetic or enthusiastic enough for me to use as a rallying call – I can imagine it now:

‘What do we want?’ ‘A fact-based worldview!’

‘When do we want it?’ ‘In a suitable and sensible timeframe!’.

A positive worldview

Calling my worldview ‘positive’ would draw attention to the important task of counteracting the negative bias we receive from most of the news, and indeed from our evolutionary instincts to be wary of threats.  But calling it ‘positive’ unfortunately insinuates that it ignores the negatives – that it only provides part of the story – and I do not wish to be accused of selectivity.

A progressive worldview

Progressive’ is another alternative I have considered – and, to quote a panellist on the 10 October 2018 episode of Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ devoted to deconstructing the concept, “if you have a problem with progress, try regress”!  But the term ‘progressive’ has been adopted by politically motivated groups to stand in opposition to ‘reactionary’ – and whilst I have sympathies with this viewpoint, I want to avoid politically charged vocabulary, for fear that it might alienate some practitioners and students.  This is a shame, as the concept of ‘progress’ (as opposed to ‘progressive’) is a well-known and broadly supported notion.  In this vein, I heavily recommend interested readers to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018).

A hopeful worldview

I settled on ‘hopeful’ a few months ago, as I thought that it conveyed a positive, without being Panglossian, sense of the future.  Also, if Barack Obama’s first election was won on the theme of ‘Hope’, then it shows the power of this word.  I was aware it had a slightly passive ring about it (which I assume is why Obama’s campaign team paired it with the more active ‘Change’), but I still felt that it was the word which best summed up my outlook.

Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Hope%22_poster

I was excited, then, to find that David Hicks had already written an article on ‘A geography of hope’ in the journal ‘Geography’ in 2014 – and I continued to be engaged when in the second paragraph, Hicks writes that he has “an interest in how teachers and learners can stay optimistic and hopeful in such difficult times” (p.5).  Hicks seems to share my worries that hope can be misconstrued as being passive: “there is a significant difference between ‘hoping that’ something will come about (such as the sun shining tomorrow), and the more radical or active hope that is needed to survive in really difficult circumstances. Such hope is ontological: it is what we draw on when we are faced by the worst that life can offer” (ibid: p.9).

However, although I have uncovered a rich source of relevant literature on the subject, there are subtle differences between my worldview and the one outlined by Hicks.  His conception of hope seems to be founded on an ‘alternative’ future, rather than by looking back and celebrating the progress which has already been made towards this goal.  In a personal communication, Hicks says that whilst he certainly thinks that learners should be encouraged to feel more positive about the state of the local/global community, he “would find it difficult to be positive about… the degree of human damage to the biosphere over the last 50+ years”.  My worldview, whilst being pragmatic enough to recognise environmental challenges, nevertheless celebrates achievements in social, economic and environmental spheres and wishes to publicise them.  Additionally, of course, he got there first!  Whilst inspired by it, I do not want to take any credit for the notion of ‘A geography of hope’.

A possibilist worldview

So, what other terms are available to describe the worldview which I am so passionate about?  In Factfulness (2018), Hans Rosling, the doyen of fact-based worldviews, wrote

“I’m a very serious “possibilist”.  That’s something I made up.  It means something who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview…. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are.  It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful” (p.69).

So, could ‘possibilist’ be the term that I have been searching for?  I am not so sure: it doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, and it doesn’t quite seem to convey the positive direction that most social and economic, and many environmental, global trends seem to be taking: ‘possible’ outcomes are merely ‘options’ rather than ‘positive’ ones.  Or perhaps there is mileage in taking this word on, not only as a homage to the great man, but also because it doesn’t carry as much political or psychological baggage as many of the alternatives.

An optimistic worldview

Which leaves me with my last choice – should I go with my heart and plump for ‘optimistic’?  In this respect I am in the awkward position of disagreeing with Hans Rosling.  Rosling said that people calling him an optimist made him angry: “I am not an optimist.  That makes me sound naïve” (2018: p.69).  However, I am not so sure.  Is it not possible to both to reframe optimism, and to reclaim it from those who associate it with naivety?

A conundrum

I am torn between ‘possibilist’ and ‘optimistic’.  Which way should I turn?  As always, I welcome your thoughts!

Bibliography

Hicks, D. (2014a) ‘A geography of hope’, Geography, 99, 1, pp. 5-12

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane)

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

Answer to ‘name that view’ photo: Stegastein viewpoint, Norway