We already have a ‘Progress Studies’ – so why do we need a new one?

progress Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright: A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary, 1766 (Source

  • What is progress?
  • How can it be measured?
  • What are the prospects for future progress?
  • How can social and economic progress occur with minimal impact on the environment?
  • Why is is that progress made by humankind since 1800, and especially since 1950, has been unappreciated by so many people?

Many of these questions have been with us for centuries.  But three trends in the last five years or so have moved them towards the centre stage among academics, social commentators and politicians:

  1. A questioning of social democratic norms and a retreat from some aspects of globalisation, as exemplified by the Brexit vote, the continued popularity of Donald Trump, and a shift towards populism in many parts of the world
  2. An increase in concerns about environmental sustainability, particularly regarding climate change and plastic pollution
  3. An increasing number of commentators are becoming more vocal in championing a more rational, humanist, and positive view of the world.  These people – who range from academics to public health professionals and data scientists to journalists – have been given the contentious collective term ‘new optimists‘*

Is the time right for ‘Progress Studies’?

Partly as a response to these trends in the zeitgeist, Patrick Collison (an ‘entrepreneur’) and Tyler Cowen (an economics professor) are promoting the establishment of a new field of study called ‘Progress Studies’:

“Progress … is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up.” (Collinson and Cowen, 2019)

Collinson and Cowen appreciate the challenges facing this nascent discipline: they admit the costly and time-consuming process of reorganising departments, timetables, staffing and degree programmes (not to mention, I would add, complications in secondary education and the transition to higher education).

Undaunted, they propose a ‘school of thought’, akin to climate science, which would arise from a ‘decentralised shift’ of some of the time and priorities of academics.  In time, communities, journals, and conferences would be devoted to these questions.

Fragmented scholarship?

They appreciate that “[p]lenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion”, and they point to several subjects which can claim to have contributed to studies about progress.  They focus on economics, business studies, psychology and history (specifically ‘applied history’).

I would add philosophy to this list – for what would Progress Studies be without a robust philosophical base?  It could consider, for example, what the telos (final goal) of progress should be, and it could consider the notion that citizens might only sign up to progress if it is imbued with meaning for them (see, for example, Laïdi, 1998).

Politics is also absent from Collinson and Cowen’s list – but the chances of continued progress (of any conception) would be stymied without political backing, or at least aquiescence.  Sociology can stake a claim too: Diane Coyle (2019) points to a Twitter exchange in which Professor Gina Neff argues that “the rise of the industrial revolution gave rise to the entire disicpline of sociology to empirically measure the changes happening to people & society as the the economy changed. It was ‘Progress Studies 1.0’, if you will.” (Neff, 2019).

We already have a ‘Progress Studies’ – Geography

However, the authors’ most egregious omission is Geography.  I argue that Geography is the most well-equipped to deal with the complexities and spatial variances of progress.  Aside from my own bias as a geographer, why do I hold this point of view?

– Many of the questions posed by Collison and Cowen are spatial, and therefore inherently geographical: one such question they pose is “Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. … Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong?”

– There is a well-established discipline of Development Studies, which is linked to Geography and has manifested itself as an undergraduate degree course as well as in Development Education Centres.  The existence of Development Studies as an IGCSE subject (it is to be withdrawn in 2021) and a World Development A Level (2009-2018) shows that it has had a foothold in formal secondary qualifications too.

– Geography has a long history of questioning very the notion of, let alone the definitions of, progress.  Diane Coyle (2019), an economist, states that “the standard indicator of real GDP growth, which leaves out much of what people value, will no longer do….How should it be measured and monitored, and who experiences it?”.  This is commonly understood by school age geographers; Economics has no monopoly on such questioning.

– The discipline is powerful – it can pose ‘Big Geographical Questions‘ which recognise complexity; it has also thrived on the challenge of tackling ‘wicked problems‘ and can interrogate and respond to them.

– Geography is proving its worth in a world which is crying out for knowledge and understanding over ignorance.  To hand the reins of ‘Progress Studies’ over to members of other disciplines might be unwise, as they may understand some concepts in depth, but their worldview is incomplete.  One example of this is Coyle (2019): this article implies a level of ignorance about the extent of progress across the world which some of the ‘new optimists’ would find ironic: she states that “if most people do not experience progress, then society isn’t really progressing at all” – when in fact, most of the people in the world are experiencing progress (see, for example, Norberg, 2017, Roslings et al, 2018, Pinker, 2018).  I contend that a more valid concern is that large numbers of global citizens do not appreciate this progress, not through willfulness or a lack of intelligence, but thanks to a complex interplay of psychological heuristics, media biases, and educational inertia.

Stand up and be counted!

Practitioners of geography are still wrestling with conceptions of progress – and will do indefinitely.  I have argued elsewhere that one of the challenges facing current geographical education is that it seems to be skewed towards negativity and is one of the midwives of the ‘age of anxiety’ (Alcock, 2019a, 2019b, Standish and Alcock, 2019).  Nevertheless, if Progress Studies is to develop as a discipline, Geography should stand up and be counted as the strongest candidate for ‘owning’ it – and for responding to the debate which has surrounded its proposal.

[I welcome responses, enlightenment and challenges to these thoughts!]

References:

Alcock, D. (2019a) ‘An Optimistic Education: Rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress’. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 6: https://impact.chartered.college/article/an-optimistic-education-rebalancing-curriculum-accurately-convey-human-progress/

Alcock, D. (2019b) ‘Optimism, Progress and Geography – Celebration and Calibration’. Teaching Geography, 44(3), 118-120.

Collinson, P. and Cowen, T. (2019) ‘We Need a New Science of Progress’ in The Atlantic, 30 July: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/we-need-new-science-progress/594946/

Coyle, D. (2019) ‘The Puzzle of Economic Progress’ in Project Syndicate, 13 August: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-progress-academic-research-puzzle-by-diane-coyle-2019-08

Laïdi, Z (1998) A World Without Meaning (Routledge)

Neff, G. (2019) Tweet,7:15 AM · Jul 31, 2019: https://twitter.com/ginasue/status/1156448180642488321

Norberg, J. (2017) Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (OneWorld)

Pinker, S. (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. UK: Penguin Random House.

Rosling, H., Rosling, O. and Rosling Rönnlund, A. (2018) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things are Better than you Think. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Standish, A. and Alcock, D. (2019) ‘Social Progress, Optimism and the Curriculum: Where is the Intergenerational Conversation Going Wrong?’ – paper submitted to Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, 6 December

* Note on The ‘New Optimists’: Building on the ideas of Ester Boserup, Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg, their number includes Steven Pinker, Max Roser, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, and Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling.  Whilst they are by no means a coherent entity, and they span the political spectrum, what these so-called ‘new optimists’ share is a desire for a more optimistic – or at least, in the words of Rosling et al (2018), a ‘possibilistic’, view of the world.

What works? Let students find out!

Why should educational research be the preserve of academics and teachers?  Let the students have a go!

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Figure 1: Students busy taking part in the Comprehension Comparison Challenge

(L-R: Listening, reading, dual coding, noting)

Engaging with the findings of educational research has become more embedded in the lives of teachers in the UK in recent years.  The ranks of academics are being joined by a growing number of teachers and leaders engaging in research – whether as active creators of projects, or as enthusiastic consumers of the findings of others.

Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of the UK’s Centre for Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), notes that “recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) about teachers’ research engagement in English schools suggested that teachers are willing to engage more with research evidence than was the case a decade or two ago, and many schools are supportive of evidence use” (Cordingley, 2019: 142).

I wonder how often teachers refer explicitly to research in class?  After all, if students are told that ‘research shows that this works’, perhaps they would be willing to trust and engage with certain approaches?  Members of my Year 12 tutor group were certainly interested when they learned of one of the findings of the ‘VESPA Mindset’ model: 20 hours independent study a week strongly correlates with attaining A and A* grades at A Level.

Getting the students involved

This week I also began to wonder how often we engage students in the process of educational research?  I have a particularly compliant and open-minded Year 10 Geography class, so in one lesson I had a go at following a compressed version of the scientific method to try out a snippet of educational research in one 45 minute lesson.

By the end of Key Stage 3, Geography students will have had to “collect, analyse and draw conclusions from geographical data” via fieldwork (Department for Education, 2013) and they would also have had practice in the scientific method in science lessons, so the process would not have been new to them.

This wasn’t the fruit of a long period of pondering – it came from the experience of planning a lesson and realising that it was probably going to be uninspiring for the students unless I added something extra to it.  It also came from a keenness to get the students involved in finding out what learning approaches might work for them.

I had one lesson to play with.  So what did I do and how did it go?

1. Formulating an enquiry theme

I started by asking my students how they might go about assimilating and understanding an unfamiliar double-page textbook spread.  As I hoped for, two responses duly came back: ‘reading’ and ‘noting’.  I then asked the class to refer back to a previous lesson where I had extolled the virtues of ‘dual coding’ (using visuals to aid understanding) – in this case, it was a simple mnemonic/sketch hybrid which summarised the factors influencing tree species in the UK temperate forest biome (see figure 2).

WARS dual coding

Figure 2: A mnemonic/sketch hybrid which summarises the factors influencing tree species in the UK temperate forest biome

I then asked if any of them had tried to revise using podcasts, or had heard of older siblings or friends doing so.  A couple of hands went up.  (When I asked about YouTube videos, a couple more hands tentatively followed.)  So, after a short discussion, we had a theme – which I entitled the ‘Comprehension Comparison Challenge’ – and four approaches to compare: reading, writing, noting, and dual coding!

2. Methodology

I went around the class, asking one person to read, their neighbour to listen, the next person to make written notes only, and the next person to make a combination of sketches and notes.  Instructions were simple:

  • Readers should not show the pages to the listeners, but could repeat content if requested to do so
  • Listeners were encouraged to shut their eyes to focus their attention on the content
  • The written notes and sketch/note combinations could be in any form that the students wanted

After about 12 minutes, the students were issued a 15-mark short answer test (on A5 paper) based on the textbook spread.  I read out the answers (eliciting responses via questioning the students) and students self-marked their test papers.

3. Results

Students called out their results and I filled in a basic Excel spreadsheet table (figure 3); I showed this process on the whiteboard.

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Figure 3: Spreadsheet of marks

4. Presentation

The class swiftly agreed that a bar chart would be the best way to show this discrete data (figure 4).

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Figure 4: Bar chart of results

5. Analysis

The top highest scoring categories were ‘noting’ and ‘dual coding’.  We analysed the size of the margins by which these two ‘won’ the challenge, why the two ‘winning’ methods might work, and why merely reading or listening may be less efficient approaches to learning – at least when carried out in isolation.  We briefly discussed the different types of ‘noting’, but time was beginning to run out at this point!

6. Conclusion

So, what worked?  I easily managed to get the feedback from the class that a combination of methods, focussing mainly on noting and dual coding, may well be the ‘winning ticket’ in terms of strategies to comprehend information.

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Figure 5: Student example of dual coding

7. Evaluation

I will be perfectly honest and say that as the end of the lesson was swiftly approaching, I just said that this survey was an example of the kind of research carried out into learning but that it was unscientific in many respects.  I suggested to the students that they should consider combining notes and dual coding their preparations for future tests and examinations.  But in longer lessons – perhaps you have hour-long periods? – a fuller evaluation process would be achievable.

Reflections

I contend that letting students not only see ‘research in action’, but also helping them to design and take part in it, will give them the following benefits:

  • They can see the immediate results of why some learning methods are more effective than others (again, I must stress the limitations of this very brief ‘experiment’)
  •  They have more practice of the scientific method, which will help them in Geography and the sciences
  • They might be more willing to try new ways of working
  • On a short-term basis, the lesson was more interesting and I hope that the content sunk in (let’s see if it has in the next end of unit test on energy!)

I would love to have handed the conclusion and evaluation sections over to the students.  In longer lessons – perhaps you have hour-long periods? – a fuller evaluation process would be achievable.  Perhaps I will try it again in a double lesson with one of my A Level groups to give the students a fuller appreciation of the whole process.

I should also have allowed enough time to point out that the two ‘winning methods’ can’t be carried out once, but that knowledge of retrieval practice, spacing and self explanation (amongst other methods, as covered by Dunlosky et al, 2013) will be necessary to enhance the chances of longer term retention and application of information.  But effective studying and revision are covered at other times in my school, and as they begin to adopt the VESPA model, this should be covered more frequently and thoroughly.

Have you engaged your students in micro-experiments such as this, or even in more in-depth studies?  Get in touch!

References

Cordingley, P (2019) ‘Collaborative engagement in and with research: A central part of the CPD landscape’ in Scutt, C and Harrison, S: Teacher CPD: International trends, opportunities and challenges (pp138-143) – Chartered College of Teaching, London: https://my.chartered.college/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Chartered-College-International-Teacher-CPD-report.pdf (members-only, paywall)

Department for Education (2013) Geography programmes of study: key stage 3: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239087/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_Geography.pdf

Dunlosky, J, Rawson, K, Marsh, E, Nathan, M and Willingham, D (2013) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 14, 1: pp. 4-58: https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/Z10jaVH/60XQM/full

In defence of carbon offsetting

2019-Meghan-and-Harry-private-jet-thekit.ca-facebook

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

Source: https://thekit.ca/life/celebrity-life/elton-john-meghan-markle-prince-harry/

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been given a rough ride in some sections of the media.  A short time after speaking out in favour of action to tackle climate change, they were criticised as hypocrites for taking four plane journeys in eleven days.  This is a familiar criticism levelled at celebrities and politicians who do the same thing.

One defence of this criticism is that to make the most of their influential positions, such people need to be seen and heard in as many places as possible.  It could also be argued that they are operating within a transport system which provides no reasonable alternatives for time-pressed travellers who wish to reach long-haul locations.  In my opinion, these are only partially acceptable excuses: accusations that frequent-flying eco-celebrities are being hypocrites still, at first glance, have a degree of validity.

Damned if they do and damned if they don’t

But what if their flights have been carbon offset?  Carbon offsetting involves paying an organisation to invest in climate protection projects throughout the world which reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, thus protecting the climate.

In the case of Harry and Meghan, Elton John was publicised as having contributed, on their behalf, to a carbon offset scheme run by Carbon Footprint.  Despite criticism of Al Gore flying around the world to push for climate action (as shown in his film An Inconvenient Truth), he too has carbon offset his emissions.  Leonardo di Caprio is another high-profile carbon offsetter, as is Greta Thunberg, who has ensured that the flights her crew took back to Europe following her ‘zero-carbon’ sailing trip to America have been carbon balanced.

I tend to support carbon offsetting.  I recognise that this opinion may partly stem from my self-interest of wanting to take a flight every year or two, but  I believe it has a role to play as a pragmatic, short-term response to climate change.  Let us examine the key criticisms made of the approach.

Criticism 1. They are not taking CO₂ out of the air

Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace [disclaimer: I am a member], was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “These are good schemes, and they have positive outcomes, but they are things we should be doing anyway.  But they’re not taking out CO₂.”  It’s true in many cases: some schemes are not taking out CO₂, they are merely preventing CO₂ entering the atmosphere.  For instance, one project involves replacing fuel-inefficient stoves with more efficient ones in some of the poorest regions of the world, such as Darfur (Sudan) and rural Kenya.  Nevertheless, I would argue that preventing CO₂ from entering the atmosphere is itself a laudable goal, and one which may not take place to such a great an extent if it wasn’t for carbon offsetting schemes.

bruntcliffe_girls_plant Carbon Footprint website

Fig 1: A Carbon Footprint tree-planting scheme

https://www.carbonfootprint.com/plantingtrees.html

However reafforestation schemes do take CO₂ out of the air, once the trees have been established.  And I imagine that in the near future, schemes could involve investing in carbon capture and storage solutions too – such as the ones I write about here.

Criticism 2: The impacts of carbon offsetting will take a long time to have an impact

In the case of the Sussexes, the Daily Mail reported that it would take 320 years for a single tree to absorb all of the CO₂ emitted by the four flights they took in August 2019, as shown by Figure 2 below.  On one level, this graphic is ridiculous, as they wouldn’t have paid for just one tree to be planted!  But a more sensible argument is that even if many hundreds of trees were planted to absorb the CO₂, they would take a few years to grow to their full effectiveness.

Daily Mail Carbon Balance Graphic

Figure 2: Misleading Daily Mail graphic showing the ‘slow’ effects of carbon offsetting

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7372959/Carbon-setting-scheme-supported-Sir-Elton-John-no-meaningful-effect-climate.html

As well as the slightly flippant, but nevertheless partially valid, response of ‘better late than never’, another riposte is that whilst it may well be a long time until the CO₂ you emit gets soaked up by the trees that are planted, most carbon offset schemes give more immediate results because, for example, their funds go towards renewable energy schemes or  energy efficiency measures.

Additionally, some schemes allow institutions to have the trees planted on or near their grounds (see Figure 1), therefore helping members of such institutions – including schoolchildren – a chance to physically connect with the natural environment, to associate climate change with nature, and to encourage a sense of ‘biophilia‘ which may encourage them to develop other pro-environment behaviours.

Criticism 3: The rich will be able to buy their way out of environmental responsibility

George Monbiot has compared carbon offsetting to the medieval Catholic church’s sale of ‘indulgences’ whereby wealthy parishioners could have their sins absolved for a price – and thus be free to sin again:

“Just as in the 15th and 16th centuries you could sleep with your sister and kill and lie without fear of eternal damnation, today you can live exactly as you please as long as you give your ducats to one of the companies selling indulgences. It is pernicious and destructive nonsense.”

But, if carbon offsetting were carried out routinely, and even became a legal obligation – perhaps by means of some kind of ‘overdraft fee’ for a personal ‘carbon budget’ – then I propose that they should be treated as a valid and in fact commendable extension of the notion of ‘the polluter pays’ principle.

Monbiot also stated that “Even if, through carbon offset schemes carried out in developing countries, every poor nation on the planet became carbon-free, we would still have to cut most of the carbon we produce at home [to restrict global warming to 2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels].”  This statement both ignores the possibility of carbon offsetting schemes being carried out in developed countries, and understates the abilities of developing countries to undertake a transition to a low carbon economy.

It is easy to underestimate the potential of carbon offsetting.  Yes, merely offsetting the carbon emissions of our activities may be insufficient to avoid runaway climate change, but if we were to double or triple our offsetting payments, then we could really make a difference in this regard.  Countries have indeed begun to consider introducing offsetting escalators: in the UK, the government’s climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, has recommended that a frequent flyer levy, under which each citizen would be allowed one tax-free flight a year, but would pay progressively higher taxes on each additional flight.

Criticism 4: The projects might have happened anyway

The ‘environmental Kuznets curve‘ theory (see Figure 3) states that countries develop, they go through three stages in relation to environmental degradation:

  • Pre-industrial Economies: The environment becomes gradually more degraded as agriculture mechanises and energy-intensive industries grow
  • Industrial Economies: The dominant economic sector is manufacturing, and energy sources tend to be high carbon
  • Post-Industrial Economies: Pollution decreases as manufacturing activities either become more energy efficient or close down [pollution can be ‘exported’ abroad in some cases], environmental awareness rises, and increased levels of affluence enables countries to enact and support environmental laws

Environmntal_Kuznets_Curve

Figure 3: The environmental Kuznets curve

Source: Kjeffreytaylor [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

On this basis, it could be claimed that typical carbon offsetting projects such as afforestation and promoting renewable energy will happen anyway, and so carbon offsetting is a pointless diversion of funds away from other ways of protecting the environment.

But even if carbon offsetting projects would eventually happen according to this theory, I can see no harm in accelerating their implementation, as they will set the standard for others to follow.  And Monbiot’s criticism that some schemes may fail, and that many are unaccountable is now outdated, as there are now Quality Assurance Schemes and auditing of market leading companies such as Carbon Footprint.

Carbon offsetting – a short-term, pragmatic approach

Of course carbon offsetting is not a panacea.  Climate change is a pressing and long-term global problem, and carbon offsetting can only be a short- to medium-term response to it.

More efforts should be focused on shifting political, corporate, and human mindsets, and, in more practical terms, we need to develop renewable energy sources and increase energy efficiency.  But one irony is that such efforts could be funded by carbon offsetting, and by marshalling the troops against it, some commentators are reducing the chances that it can be solved, both by reducing the cash flow from such sources, and by fostering cynicism in pro-environment activity (as shown by the Daily Mail article).

Perhaps more disturbing, however, is the moral framing of the issue.  The ‘polluter pays’ principle is lauded by environmentalist commentators when applied to big businesses and countries.  But when it comes to individuals, moral arguments against it are marshalled – here is Monbiot again: “[Y]ou can now buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet.”

I contend that, although it is not the only way forward, you can to some extent buy the survival of the planet.  You may need to be impelled to do so and to overpay for it to have a significant effect, but you can buy it.  And if you do, then you should not feel guilty.

Moral absolutism will not win any friends in this most emotional of environmental topics; global citizens, corporations and governments should aspire to reduce their carbon footprint, and if carbon offsetting forms part of these efforts, then it should be welcomed as a short-term, pragmatic part of the mix.

Optimism, progress and geography – celebration and calibration

TG article Autumn 2019

In the most recent edition of the Geographical Association’s journal ‘Teaching Geography’ (Autumn 2019) I write about how geography teachers can help our students to become aware not only that the world faces severe challenges, but also that progress has been made, and to learn about past successes so that they can be built upon.

Inspired by ‘Factfulness’ (Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, 2018), ‘Enlightenment Now’ (Steven Pinker, 2018) and other sources, I explore common misconceptions about the world held by students (and many teachers too!).  Then, adapting a framework suggested by Bobby Duffy in ‘The Perils of Perception’ (2018), I suggest ways that teachers can recognise and begin to address such misconceptions.

I conclude by asserting that “The raison d’etre of geography is to ‘write about the world’, so for the sake of our students, our discipline and wider society, let’s give it our best, most accurate, shot.”

Copyright restrictions mean that I can’t go into more detail, but I urge Geography teachers to join the GA and subscribe to the journal to keep their subject knowledge and pedagogy up to date: www.geography.org.uk

Necessity is the mother of invention

Cool roofing

Figure 1: Cool roofing in Greece

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/apr/13/cool-roofs-beating-the-midday-sun-with-a-slap-of-white-paint

‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’  This proverb might recall mundane ‘quick fixes’, but it may just lead us out of a global climate catastrophe.

We are already living in a world where, according to September’s United Nations’ ‘United in Science’ report, “Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts on socio-economic development and the environment.”  We have just had the warmest five year period on record, sea ice and ice mass continue to shrink, sea levels continue to rise, and sea water is becoming more acidic (IPCC, 2019).

Figure 2: Key findings of the September 2019 United in Science report

Source: https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/landmark-united-science-report-informs-climate-action-summit

It is no wonder that young and old alike are despairing about the environment.  At the recent climate strike in Leeds, I saw a sign saying, ‘The End of the World is Nigh’, alongside several other depressing banners.  I share the concerns of the strikers – but not the despair and rage of many of them.  I believe in the ability of humankind to pull us out of this mess.  We have left it late – yes – but I still have faith.  On what grounds, you might ask?

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote in ‘The Population Bomb’ that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” and that by the 1980s, four billion people would starve to death.  Ehrlich also believed that prices of the world’s resources would keep on rising, as they were finite and subject to ever-increasing demand.  In 1980, the economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to stake $10,000 on his belief that the cost of raw materials would not rise in the long run.  Simon argued that any rises in the price of a resource would be temporary as it would provide incentives for people to look for more of it, to produce and use it more efficiently, and to develop substitutes.

Ehrlich took Simon up on his wager, and ten years later, paid out $576.07 after the prices of all the raw materials that Ehrlich chose (chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten) fell in price (Desrochers, 2015).  In terms of the supply of minerals, then, necessity was the mother of invention.

Now let me take you back to 1965. Ester Boserup was a Danish economist, who suggested that food production can, and will, increase to match the needs of the population.  She worked for the United Nations, and she found that in the developing world, the threat of starvation and the challenge of feeding more mouths usually motivated people to improve their farming methods and invent new technologies in order to produce more food: another case of necessity driving invention.

janfeb2018_o99_populationbomb

Figure 3: Death tolls from famine compared to global population size, 1900-2010

Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/book-incited-worldwide-fear-overpopulation-180967499/

The term ‘Boserupian’ is now used to cover a wide range of ‘leaps forward’ which are provoked by concerns about the supply of an in-demand resource coming to a crisis point.  Human ingenuity plays a key role in such ‘leaps forward’ – and one genius was the Nobel Prize winning scientist Norman Borlaug, who, between the 1950s and 70s, spearheaded the ‘Green Revolution’ in Mexico, southern Asia and beyond.  The necessity of feeding the burgeoning numbers of the world’s poor was largely met by the invention of new strains of high-yielding and disease-resistant wheat.

If you broaden the definition of ‘inventions’ to cover innovative political solutions, there are even more reasons to be hopeful.  For instance, following the scientific proof of the contribution of harmful CFC gases to the depletion of the ozone layer, the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning them was signed, showing the rewards of political unity and commonality of purpose.  The hole in the ozone layer – a source of much anxiety a generation ago – is now forecast to close by 2050.

Fast forward to 2019, and to the biggest man-made environmental threat ever to face the world: climate change.  This truly is a ‘wicked problem’ – in that it is a problem that is difficult (or even impossible) to solve due to the existence of “incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems” (Hubbard, n.d.).  The United Nations report is just the most recent of many which show that for humans to survive and thrive, there is a necessity for climate change to be solved.  But what ‘inventions’ exist to tackle it?

Some inventions have already begun to slow the march of climate change.  Renewable energy technology, aided by patchy government assistance, has advanced so much in the UK that in November last year, the capacity of renewable energy (mostly wind) overtook that of fossil fuels (Shresthsa, 2018).  In addition, an increase in the storage capacity and efficiency of batteries means that electric cars are entering the mainstream, and more and more countries are setting deadlines for the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars.

Other inventions are at a more exploratory stage. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been mooted as one of the possible saviours: this involves collecting carbon dioxide from a source such as a power station, then storing it underground.  A version combining this with biomass burning began at Drax earlier in the year. Bill Gates and other investors are behind an even more adventurous task: that of directly capturing carbon dioxide from the air and then using the gas to make carbon-neutral synthetic fuels (Vidal, 2018).

Direct Air Capture

Figure 4: An artist’s impression of a ‘direct air capture’ project

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/04/carbon-emissions-negative-emissions-technologies-capture-storage-bill-gates

Some people place their faith in more ‘low tech’ solutions.  The most obvious of these is to soak up carbon dioxide via reforestation: this is occurring faster than deforestation in half of the world’s regions.  Another easy to implement method is painting roofs white – this reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere and reduces interior temperatures, therefore having the additional effect of reducing energy consumption for air conditioning.  These ‘cool roofing’ projects are taking place in cities all around the world, from Ahmedabad to New York (Lewis, 2017).

A range of other solutions exist, and still more will no doubt be developed in the years to come.  However, we should not be complacent: these changes have not come ‘naturally’, or solely as a result of market forces.  Scientists, researchers, campaigners and politicians have all played their part in the inception and propagation of these ideas.  If we succumb to a narrative of despair about climate change, believing it to be overwhelming, then we do ourselves and later generations a disservice.  Let’s congratulate, support, fund and highlight the work of ‘climate change inventors’, because we need them now more than ever.

References:

Desrochers, P (2015) ‘The Simon-Ehrlich wager 25 years on’: https://www.spiked-online.com/2015/09/29/the-simon-ehrlich-wager-25-years-on/

Hubbard, R (n.d.) Wicked Problems: https://www.wickedproblems.com/1_wicked_problems.php

IPCC (2019) United in Science: https://www.ipcc.ch/2019/09/22/united-in-science-report-climate-summit/

Lewis, D (2017) ‘Cool roofs: beating the midday sun with a slap of white paint’ The Guardian, 13 April 2017

Shresthsa, P (2018) ‘UK renewables capacity overtakes fossil fuels for the first time’ in Energy Live News: https://www.energylivenews.com/2018/11/07/uk-renewables-capacity-overtakes-fossil-fuels-for-first-time/

Vidal, J (2018) ‘How Bill Gates aims to clean up the planet’ in The Observer, 4 February 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/04/carbon-emissions-negative-emissions-technologies-capture-storage-bill-gates

 

 

 

Keep faith in the human condition

Crowd

Whatever you are doing this summer, keep faith in the human condition.  Take the chance of a slower news cycle to put the prevailing narrative of despair into perspective.  Whilst it is crucial to appreciate the mistakes of the past and the challenges ahead, it is important and salutary to contemplate the progress that humanity has made.

When a report emerges of terrible wrongs inflicted on a minority group, leading to hunger, torture or the infringement of other human rights, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But have confidence that the mass of humanity is making steps towards becoming better fed, more peaceful, and more respectful of other people.

When elements of the media foster intolerance, and provide a mouthpiece for writers who thrive on hatred, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But put it in the context of a fitful but deep-seated shift towards liberty and tolerance being made across the world.

When the rights of a minority are being restricted in their schooling, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But realise that humanity is becoming more literate, numerate, skilled and better informed about their rights and responsibilities; we are meeting our potential and we will harness it to achieve even greater progress in the future.

When a despot picks on the oppressed, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But remember the scientists, engineers, medics, educators, researchers, journalists, civil servants, the vast majority of politicians, and billions of unsung people from all walks of life, who strive to make our world a better place.

When a political leader threatens our hard-won gains, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But understand that they are swimming against the tide, they are appealing to a dwindling demographic, and they will be beaten.

When inequality thrives and hardship bites, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But contemplate the gains people in the vast majority of the world continue to make in living standards, health, nutrition, communication, education, leisure, peace, safety, reason and science.

When your eyes are opened to an environmental threat, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But don’t despair, don’t panic, and don’t act rashly.  Seek alternatives, seek solutions, and seek solace in the fact that humanity has faced down such challenges before and we will do so again.

Be aware of the internal biases we have that direct us towards a negative, fearful and oppositional worldview, and recognise the external influences which mitigate against a ‘factful’, hopeful, and optimistic one.  Then re-calibrate, celebrate, and play your part in humanity’s grand project.

Humanity has never been so healthy, peaceful and prosperous as it is at the moment, and with such a history of progress, why should we predict regress?

Fight the good fight, and have faith this summer.

David

PS  Take a look at the graphs below.  And read my earlier blog posts for some balance and context.  But hey, everyone deserves the right to be polemic once in a while!

Two-centuries-World-as-100-people-small

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts#

16 good up

16 good up 2

16 bad down

16 bad down 2

Source: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling-Rönnlund (2018)

In lieu of my usual list of references, I’d like to express my gratitude at the end of an interesting academic year during which I have been able to explore several avenues of thought on this blog and beyond.  Thank you to Gapminder for their inspiration and for supplying a framework for my thoughts, and Max Roser’s Our World in Data for, well, the data (and graphs, and commentary too!).  Thanks also to Bobby Duffy for his superb ‘Perils of Perception’, Steven Pinker for the even more highly recommended ‘Enlightenment Now’ and ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, and Alex Standish for his inspiration and willingness to work with me on this theme in the future.  And thanks to many others who have commented on and supported me so far (I won’t name any more at this juncture for fear of offending my omission!).  Many references are to be found in my earlier blog posts.

As ever, your comments are welcome!

Source of image at top of post

Read this, act now!

“Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind”

(Albert Einstein, 1950, as cited in Pinker, 2019, from Mueller, 1989) 

One of the criticisms levelled at those who celebrate the progress that society has already achieved is that a positive mindset can lead to complacency.  This is indeed something which everyone who is concerned with understanding global affairs should be wary of.  Complacency can lead to inaction where action is deemed to be necessary, and it can also mean that those who are more vociferous can be heard more loudly: the dominant narrative can be controlled by powerful interests.

However, I would argue that there is a more pressing case to be made against acting too soon, too urgently, and too rashly.

The dangers of urgency

Urgency can lead to a sense of despair – and this in its own right is concerning from a mental health perspective.  But despair is also a concern because it may lead to either a lack of action, or action which tends towards adaptation rather than mitigation (i.e. directing more energy towards solving the effects of a problems rather than its causes).  For instance, in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change, it may well be easier for authorities to prioritise the construction of higher sea walls over cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Acting urgently can also lead to responses to challenges which might be rushed, inappropriate, or uncoordinated.  They may even be counter-productive, or cause significant knock-on impacts elsewhere.  For example, the rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, initially by co-firing biomass with coal in pre-existing power stations, and latterly through the use of biomass boilers, has resulted in deforestation, some from virgin forests, with its concomitant loss of biodiversity.  Marco Magrini (2018) has also written about Germany’s rapid post-Fukushima shift from nuclear to coal power, and about China’s environmental challenge of dealing with rusting petrol-driven motorbikes caused by the government’s rushed promotion of electric scooters (see Figure 1).

Motorbike graveyard China

Figure 1: Abandoned motorbikes in Shenzen, China, April 2016

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/peoplesdaily/article-3524655/Striking-pictures-China-s-enormous-motorbike-graveyard-thousands-vehicles-abandoned-following-strict-ban.html

Much like compassion fatigue, ‘urgency fatigue’ can also set in.  Politicians, commentators and advocates of special interest groups are all vying for media attention with ever more extreme refrains.  For instance, how many institutions have been experiencing ‘an existential crisis’ in recent years?  Well, a quick search of the web reveals that almost every organisation is apparently struggling to survive: the NHS, the army, social care servicesBritain, the EU, humanity and now the world!  Professor Mike Hulme (2019) has recently written eloquently on the reasons why he is resisting the trend towards ‘extinctionism’ in the current discourse about climate change here (thank you to Steve Brace for drawing this to my attention).

The ratcheting up of calls for ‘urgent’ help can also lead to a ‘crying wolf’ scenario: when there is a genuinely existential threat, what fresh rhetoric will be needed to make us take action?

Related to urgency fatigue is another problem – and this too is self-perpetuating: it can feed a news and current affairs culture where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most airtime, commands the most attention, and uses up valuable political capital.  This is all achieved at the expense of those issues which may deserve deeper reflection but which lack vociferous advocates.  Without a figure such as Greta Thunberg for climate change, Malala Yousafzai for women’s rights, or Nelson Mandela for racial equality, some causes flounder.  Is this fair?  Where is the antibiotic resistance poster child?  Where is the pro-vaccination icon?

Nuanced arguments and detailed contemplation can also be lost in this noisy atmosphere; is there time, for example, for us to understand the position of the Russian and Canadian governments, who can be reluctant to act on climate change, unless we appreciate that they may benefit from the expansion of arable land in their northern regions?

I propose that an atmosphere of urgency can lead to a sense of disbelief when confronted by ‘good news stories’ – a sense which is so profound as to make one doubt the existence, or even the promise, of progress.  This is shown in the ‘cycle of urgency’ flow diagram (Figure 2, below):

Cycle of urgency

Figure 2: The cycle of urgency

(Source: author)

Doesn’t urgency drive action?

One counter-argument might be that if it wasn’t for high profile, negative, urgent stories, then less human progress would have been made, as key players, citizens and consumers would have been less aware of them.

I appreciate that this line of reasoning does have some validity.  Would today’s environmentalists have been quite so numerous or effective in their work if they hadn’t been roused by ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns in their formative years?  Would climate change have climbed up the league of pressing matters for the UN to consider without the urgency instilled by Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’?  (Update to blog post: Hans Rosling reported in ‘Factfulness’ that Gore told him in 2009 ‘We need to create fear!’).

However, does this counter-argument still hold as strongly today?  Haven’t the biggest global lessons been learned?  Do advancements in communications and education mean that society is capable of avoiding past mistakes without the headline-grabbing negativity and urgency which drove previous reforms?

For example, do we really need an ‘Extinction Rebellion’ campaign to push climate change to the top of the news?  Or is action being taken anyway, behind the scenes, to move the world in this direction?

Could it be the case that several ‘big issues’ are gradually being tackled without being driven by a headline-grabbing sense of urgency?  What motivates the drivers behind social and economic movements such as Professor Tom Crowther of Crowther Lab, who has produced meaningful and optimistic strategies for combatting climate change.  Or Chad Frishmann of Project Drawdown (Figure 3)?

drawdown_book cover

Figure 3: Project Drawdown book cover

Source: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/drawdown-and-global-warmings-hopeful-new-math

Overcoming the urge for urgency

There are significant challenges facing the world, but I would argue that it is necessary to strike a balance between educating and informing people enough to rouse and inspire them without inducing despair or panic.  Humanity should not have its achievements undermined by the corrosive effects of urgency.  We deserve better than being faced with daily self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

References 

Hulme, M (2019) ‘Am I a denier, a human extinction denier?’ 27 May 2019 https://mikehulme.org/am-i-a-denier-a-human-extinction-denier/# (accessed 7 June 2019)

Magrini, R (2018) ‘Green loopholes’ in Geographical, 90:4 (April 2018), page 9 – available online at http://geographical.co.uk/nature/energy/item/2669-green-loopholes (accessed 7 June 2019)

Mueller, J (1989) Retreat from Doomsday: The obsolescence of major war (New York: Basic Books)

Pinker, S (2019) Enlightenment Now (Penguin)