Categories
Optimism and progress

Creating stronger post-covid communities, one act at a time

StaySafeGlasgowArtBBCGetty

Covid-era street art in a Glasgow shop window

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-52646104

We are living in a covid-19 twilight zone.  The certainty and clarity of the ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ message already seems to belong to a different era.  Instead, we are now encouraged to ‘stay alert’ whilst we return to something approaching normality, where we can enjoy a trip to the pub or the shops, or to plan a holiday.  As we move incrementally back to our old ways, we should take stock of what has happened and what is happening.

The virus itself has of course led to human suffering, and the government’s responses to it have caused inconvenience at best and misery at worst.  The economy has taken the biggest hit since the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, education has been disrupted, social lives have been shattered, and sports have been hit for six.

The psychological impacts are only just being assessed: who knows what the long-term effects will be, not only of bereavement, but of joblessness, money, and housing worries?  On a personal note, as well as having vulnerable older relatives and a nephew who is being shielded, the education and socialisation of my children as well as those whom I teach has been disrupted.

But as restrictions loosen, many of us are already beginning to miss some aspects of life under lockdown.  I wrote in April that many neighbourhoods have bonded more than ever before, as people have ventured out for walks and bike rides or have stayed out for a chat after the weekly clap for carers.  Local environments are quieter and cleaner, and roads are safer.

As someone who lives just three miles away from Leeds-Bradford Airport, we had become used to the background aircraft noise, but once it disappeared, the atmosphere now seems more peaceful.  As a result, birdsong in recent months has been especially vibrant.  To complement this – although it’s nothing like the dramatic differences seen in cities in the emerging world, such as Delhi and Shanghai – the skies are clearer and have fewer contrails.

Plenty has been written about the stresses and strains of spending more time under the same roof with one’s family or housemates – and I am under no illusion that such pressures can, and have, led to an increase in domestic abuse.  But many households will have enjoyed pastimes together, bonded over more mealtimes, and even had the luxury of talking to each other more often.

Granted, we have been unable, until recently, to visit our relatives outside of Yorkshire, from our new nephew in Stafford, our new niece in Manchester, or my wife’s 90-year-old grandma in Norfolk.  But many familial bonds have arguably – and perhaps ironically – been strengthened by this enforced distancing, with phone calls occurring more frequently and the advent of video chats bringing many of us closer together.

OtleyParkManningStainton

Parks – like Wharfe Meadows in Otley – have become havens in these uncertain times

Source: https://manningstainton.co.uk/leeds/best-places-to-live-in-leeds#

Opportunities to exercise for all but the most vulnerable groups have arisen, and we are lucky that our local authorities have largely avoided closures of parks and other green spaces.  Although I will look forward to enjoying more distant national parks and other outdoor spaces when restrictions ease, I have explored many local forests, parks, and moorland areas both with my family and as a cyclist.  Local roads have also been quiet enough to take young children on, or alongside.

These are the things that I will miss when they disappear.  But will they disappear?  The good news is that they might not: the post-covid future has not happened yet.  We can all play a part in shaping it.  Our individual choices in how to live, how to travel, what to do and how to interact with others will all add up.

I suffer from FOMO – fear of missing out.  This has led me to cram my diary with a ballooning list of engagements.  This continued after the arrival of children: I felt that I had to take them to different places and to sign them up to various activities, so that they wouldn’t ‘miss out’.  I agreed to virtually anything that came up, squeezing out valuable family ‘down time’ and the chance to engage with my locality.

One of my post-covid resolutions is to maintain this degree of connection with my local area, and to disabuse myself of the notion that the grass is always greener on the other side.  As well as having personal benefits, this resolution fits in with a broader vision of the development of a more cohesive, active, and greener – some might say sustainable – community.

It’s just a small commitment, but as we emerge blinking into the challenging late-covid world, perhaps we could all take the opportunity to choose one thing – and persevere with it.  If we do, our communities could become stronger, our lives more fulfilled, and the future just that little bit brighter.

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

Can we be less hyper about mobility?

hypermobility

Sustainable transport: a walk in the park? – Source: Wikimedia

“Would you like to live in a cleaner, safer, healthier, friendlier, more beautiful, more democratic, sustainable world in which you know your neighbours and it is safe for your children to play in the street?”

That is the question which geographer John Adams posed in 2001.  It would be difficult to find anyone who would answer in the negative.  But the situation is complicated by its flipside:

“Would you like a car, unlimited air miles and a capacity to travel anywhere you would like to?”

Until very recently, it would have been extremely tempting to answer in the affirmative.  More capacity to travel would mean that we could enjoy more holidays and see more of our family and friends in far-flung places, wouldn’t it?  More exposure to different people and cultures from around the world would also have cultural benefits: travel broadens the mind.  Foreign exchanges, spells of working abroad, and other travels have certainly widened my horizons, and future generations would surely benefit from similarly mind-opening journeys.  Most economists would add that with our ‘tourist pounds’, we are able to spread the benefits of economic growth all over the world.

2 fig 8 air travel

A mind-opening journey to Montserrat – Source: Author

But Adams pointed out that if we live in a world in which everyone’s wish for more travel is granted, then life will become more challenging for everyone, and especially so for the poor and disenfranchised.  His especial beef was with the increasing propensity for people to travel further, faster, more frequently, and more excessively than ever before – a trend he called ‘hypermobility’.

The impacts of hypermobility

One of Adams’s concerns was the environmental cost of excessive travel.  I share those concerns, and I cycle to work and limit my flying to once every couple of years, as my contribution to allaying them.  But as an optimist, I look forward to an era with unlimited ‘green’ energy, therefore in a generation or so, his concerns about pollution should, I hope, become baseless.

However, regardless of the environmental costs of travel, Adams argued convincingly that a world in which more people can travel where they want and when they want, would be “dangerous, ugly, bleak, crime-ridden, alienated, anonymous, undemocratic [and] socially polarized”.

His overriding worry was that vast numbers of people moving around in sealed-off bubbles to ever more distant places threatens social cohesion.  Physically removing people from each other makes us feel less community-minded and therefore less likely to act in ways which contribute towards the common good.

Was Adams whistling in the wind?  Twenty years after his call to curtail ‘hypermobility’, outside of a handful of cities in affluent countries, there have been few signs of a significant shift in ‘car culture’ anywhere in the world… until recent weeks.

Window of opportunity

Perhaps a new window of opportunity has been opened which may allow us to reverse the trend of hypermobility.  People across the world have begun to get used to different ways of life in recent weeks, including working from home and limiting the journeys we make to undertake exercise.

There are more people than usual exercising in neighbourhood streets and open spaces.  This seems paradoxical – in a lockdown, surely the opposite would be true?  But without gyms to visit and with trips to beauty spots discouraged, many people are exploring the areas near to their homes.  Might we have had a taste of a more sustainable future?

Yes, our encounters with each other have been awkward – a kind of coronavirus sidestep takes place to keep two metres of distance between us.  However, the exchange of smiles, nods and friendly words has been heartening after hours cooped up indoors.  And then there’s the joy of seeing friends and neighbours out on their perambulation, as well as the intangible benefit of connecting with one’s local ‘turf’.

I see vast potential in continuing with some of these ways of life after the lockdown is loosened.  I am not alone – the AA President, Edmund King, says that the coronavirus crisis will change the way that we live, work and travel, and that some of the money earmarked for road infrastructure could instead be channelled into enhancing broadband provision to help home working.

Melbourne

The walkable city – Source: Academy of urbanism

And planners from Jan Gehl to Jeff Speck have lauded the concept of the ‘walkable city’.  Their research shows that small exchanges with others – whether they are strangers or friends, colleagues or shop-workers – give life a much-needed lift and an indefinable buzz to our everyday life.

Worthwhile sacrifices?

Cutting back on our excessive use of transport would sacrifice some of the benefits of frequent travel, but is this not worthwhile in order, as Adams put it, to “protect and enhance what we value in nature and our relations with friends and neighbours”?  Community cohesion would improve, our streets would be safer, and our planet would thank us.  It wouldn’t be easy, as it would come up against great opposition.  However:

“To question the benefits of hypermobility is not to deny freedom and choice. It is to ask people what it is that they really, really want, and to confront them with the fact that their choices have consequences beyond the primary objects of their desires. Collective self-discipline is the wise exercise of freedom and choice.” (Adams, 2001: 10)

Twenty years after the idea was first floated, it’s finally time to become less hyper about mobility.

References:

Adams (2001) The Social Consequences of Hypermobility – RSA lecture, 21 November 2001.  Script available at john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2006/hypermobilityforRSA.pdf

Gehl, J. (n.d.) www.gehlpeople.com

Geographical Association (n.d.) Responses to Hypermobility https://www.geography.org.uk/Responses-to-Hypermobility

Harrabin, R. (2020) Coronavirus will transform UK work and travel, says AA – BBC News website, 3 April: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52137968

Speck, J. (n.d.) www.jeffspeck.com

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

Population matters – and so does critical thinking

I was going to get all hot and bothered and write a polemical post on ‘humanity bashing’.

I had made the assumption that Chris Packham’s documentary ‘7.7 billion and counting’, which was recently aired on the BBC was misanthropic.  I had read about its wilder claims online as well as in the printed media – such as in my father-in-law’s copy of the Radio Times (Buerk, 2020).  I feared a dredging up of 1970s-style fears such as a ‘population time bomb’ (see photo below).  My optimistic mindset was also rankled at reading statements such as Packham’s belief that Lagos is “pre-apocalypse Earth”, which was quoted in the same article.

time bomb radio times clip

Fig.1: Excerpt from Radio Times preview of ‘7.7 billion and counting’ (18-24 Jan 2020 issue)

I was ready to mount a defence of humanity against the onslaught of pessimism.  At the start of the show, I hovered my thumb over a blank tweet, ready to release a tide of optimism onto an unsuspecting internet… or at least onto my small band of followers.

Misanthropy and the ‘human-sceptic’ narrative

Discussions about population control in the context of sustainability should of course take place, but, in the absence of a fuller awareness of demography and global progress, they can stray into dangerous territory – a turning of humanity against itself.

A number of instances in the weeks preceding the documentary had persuaded me that misanthropy in one form or another is still alive and well.  The letters page of the Yorkshire Post, for example, hinted at harsh solutions to the supposed ‘population crisis’:

YP comments

Figure 2: Yorkshire Post, 20 Jan 2020

Comments on an otherwise moderate Facebook thread about environmental action had also taken me aback:

Sterilisation comments from Facebook Figure 3: Facebook thread (screenshot by author, Jan 2020)

Closer to home, whilst talking with a teaching colleague about the environment, he said “What no-one seems to talk about is the elephant in the room.”  I queried him: “Do you mean climate change?”.  “No” he said, “overpopulation”.  I didn’t want to press him as to what he felt the next logical stage would be to solve this problem; I feared his response.

Even David Attenborough, a patron of Population Matters, and someone I hugely respect, feeds into this ‘human-sceptic’ narrative: he is quoted on their website as saying:

“All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”

A commonly raised concern is that if population reaches a certain level, then ‘limits to growth’ are reached and either the environment or society – or possibly both – suffers.  This is the essence of Malthusianism.  Thomas Malthus argued in 1798 that population tends to increase faster than the supply of resources needed to sustain it.  Despite being disproved in almost all scenarios – as Amartya Sen points out, most modern famines, for example, are not due to a decline in the availability of food, but rather to a restriction in food supplies – Malthusianism persists.  The misanthropy that Malthusianism fosters is dangerous for anyone who is interested in human flourishing and progress.

Population control can be used as an excuse to subjugate the world’s poor.  It can be used an excuse to reduce immigration.  It can be used as an excuse to reduce aid budgets.  It also contributes towards an anti-progress narrative: in ‘Factfulness’, Hans Rosling recounted how a student told him “They [people in developing and emerging countries] can’t live like us.  We can’t let them continue developing like this.  Their emissions will kill the planet” (2018: 214).  Rosling countered this by noting “how easily we in the West seem to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others.  We say that ‘they’ cannot live like us.  The right thing to say is, ‘We cannot live like us” (ibid: 215).

In the more distant past, famine has even been welcomed as an effective method for keeping numbers down: sources quote the British civil servant responsible for Ireland, Sir Charles Trevelyan, as saying that the great famine in the 1840s was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”.

So as I sat down to watch the documentary, I thought I would be confronted with a barrage of pessimism; an onslaught of doom-mongering.  My thumb hovered expectantly.

Trying hard to keep an open mind

But I was determined to try to watch the programme with an open mind.

It didn’t begin well: Chris Packham drew a graph showing population rising exponentially, stopping at 2020, with the unspoken implication being that it was due to carry on rising as the same rate.  Below is a very similar graph, from the website of Population Matters, which Chris Packham is a patron of:

Historical human population growth - Pop Matters

Figure 4: Historic population growth.  Source: Population Matters

A slightly more even-handed graph might have been one like the one below, which shows the most recent median projections from the United Nations, superimposed with a line graph showing a drastically slowing growth rate:

Population growth UN Figure 5: Historic population growth and median projection.  Source: Our World in Data

Packham also spoke about being “terrified” about the future of his step-child and of humanity in general, and the whole programme lacked sufficient context in terms of the great strides that have been made, especially since the 1950s, in almost all aspects of human development, ranging from healthcare to education, and living standards to human rights, which are covered in ‘Factfulness’, as well as ‘Progress’ by Johan Norberg (2017) and ‘Enlightenment Now’ by Steven Pinker (2018),  and which I have written about here and in Alcock (2019a, 2019b).

It also came as no surprise that the local environmental improvements that are sometimes seen as countries enter later stages of development (cleaner air and water, peak car use, energy efficiencies, and so on) were not mentioned.

Common ground

However, as the programme progressed, and the views of a range of demographers and other experts were aired, I began to note some areas of common ground with Packham (and indeed with Population Matters):

  • We concur that humans are “adaptable and resilient” (Packham’s words), although I feel that more attention could have been paid to the lessons from history, which show us that humanity responds to the imminent reaching of apparent ‘limits to growth’ being more innovative in terms of technology (one thinks of the Simon vs Ehrlich debate, and the findings of Ester Boserup and Ruth de Fries (2014)) or governance (e.g. fishing quotas, bans and emissions trading systems).
  • We recognise that fertility rates (the number of births per woman) are lower than they ever have been, and are forecast to fall further
  • We both believe that fertility rates should fall if we want to have a sustainable future for the world.  However, pinning a number on the ideal ‘fertility rate’ is difficult, because if it drops too quickly then we are left with another type of demographic ‘time bomb’ – that of an ageing population with too few people to support them
  • We agree that access to education, and access to contraception, are crucial elements in reducing fertility rates.  Both policies have health, human rights and well-being benefits too
  • We agree that alleviating poverty is a key way of bringing fertility rates down.  Some analyses of the Chinese one-child policy show that most of the reduction in fertility rates which took place in the years of its operation would have happened anyway, as more prosperous families tend to have fewer children.  However, I would go further and promote the increase of living standards in developing and emerging countries to those experienced in the western world, in order to achieve an even more rapid fall in fertility

I am also heartened that Population Matters has dropped or modified many, if not yet all, of its most misanthropic policies.  These include campaigning to restrict the flow of refugees to the UK, and its PopOffsets scheme to ‘offset’ carbon emissions by funding family planning schemes in the developing world, which was criticised as being condescending and of enabling affluent polluters to assuage their guilt (the latter criticism can be applied to carbon offsetting, which I defend as a short-term measure here).

Incidentally, calm and rational examination of the role of demographics in shaping a sustainable future for our planet may help to assuage one of my other concerns: that too much guilt is being heaped upon members of the public to encourage them to make radical lifestyle choices.  I fear that the pressure on individuals to ‘do something’ can result in eco-anxiety, and wider issues such as demographics require more attention in both academic and popular discourse.  I would have been even happier if I had seen more emphasis on the role that governments can play in terms of nudging and legislating towards policies such as reducing meat consumption and promoting energy efficiencies and environmentally-friendly energy generation.

A truce – but what now?

Throughout the documentary, I was in communication with a Population Matters spokesperson, and by the end of it, I tweeted that I had reached somewhat of a truce with them.  We have more beliefs in common than those which divide us.  So where does that leave me now that I am a little less hot and bothered?  Here are a few points I have been chewing on in recent days:

Approaching issues with an open-mind is crucial, as is sensibly engaging with people who may have an opinion which differs from yours.

It is important to take previews with a pinch of salt: they are designed to hook media consumers into watching or listening certain content.  Previews will latch on to the most extreme parts of a message to try to attract our attention.  The media will not easily change their ways: as Hans Rosling et al put it in ‘Factfulness’, “I cannot see even the highest-quality news outlets conveying a neutral and nondramatic representative picture of the world… It would be correct but just too boring” (2018: p.253).

Critical media engagement is a crucial skill which could and should be taught.  We particularly need a way of engaging with social media consumers which will encourage people to respond more critically with output relating to the environment and human progress.  On an individual basis, this means following the ‘rules of thumb’ outlined in ‘Factfulness’ – and summarised here – but I go further than Rosling.  He says “it is up to us as consumers to learn how to consume the news more factfully” and “it is not the goal of activists or politicians to present the world as it really is” (p.253).  However, I think that it is crucial that alongside individual changes in behaviour, we should also move towards governmental, corporate and educational initiatives to ingrain media literacy and critical thinking among the widest possible section of society.  The time is right for this.  As Bobby Duffy wrote in The Perils of Perception:

“While we shouldn’t think there was ever an age of perfectly neutral information, we also shouldn’t kid ourselves: we’re travelling towards a world where disinformation has more opportunity to be created and travel faster” (2018: 237).

I am working on such a project at the moment.  This, I believe, is one of the great issues of the media-saturated and uncertain world of the 2020s.  Without such a push, I fear a proliferation of the already worrying amount of comments which tend towards the extremes – such as those noted earlier from Facebook and the Yorkshire Post – and the insidious growth of unspoken feelings which go against the greater good.

It is possible to reinvigorate enlightenment values of reason, and to aim for a more human – and humane – way of viewing the world.  Open-mindedness and critical thinking are complex but essential weapons in this mission.

Thanks for reading.

David

References (in addition to those hyperlinked in the text):

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.

Buerk, M. (2020) ‘I’m not a baby person’, Radio Times, 24-30 January 2020 issue, pp10-13

DeFries, R. (2014) The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Environmental Crisis.

Duffy, B. (2018) The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong about Nearly Everything. London: Atlantic.

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

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

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.

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

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.

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

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.

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning Uncategorized

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

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

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

 

 

 

Categories
Optimism and progress

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

Categories
Optimism and progress

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)

 

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

Ignorant about the study of ignorance? Progress, agnotology, and anxiogenesis

“Our students will be more curious – and more intelligently so – if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge”

Jamie Holmes (2015)

Doctors smoke Camels

Mid-20th Century Advertisement for Camel cigarettes

Source: New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/business/media/07adco.html

There I was, thinking I was digging away at a relatively underexplored vein of intellectual enquiry, when I find out that there is an entire sub-discipline of the social sciences which is dedicated to it.

Agnotology is the study of ignorance, and it is at least partly ironic that I was not aware of its existence until recently.

The term was coined by Robert Proctor of Stanford University in 1992.  It has been used to analyse why it has taken so long for the scientific consensus to be accepted on issues as broad as smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change.

Proctor argues that one of the main reasons for the prolongation of doubt about these issues is that vested interest groups try to control and divert discourse about them, for example by:

  • advocating more research when a sufficient body of evidence has already been amassed to prove something beyond reasonable doubt
  • insisting on ‘balance’ in a debate where the science has been overwhelmingly settled
  • working with various commentators and branches of the media to encourage the propagation of views which dissent with the scientific consensus

Two examples can be used to briefly exemplify agnotology in action: science historian Peter Galison of Harvard (quoted in Grigg, 2011) notes that one key approach taken by creationists, in the absence of evidence to support their theory, is to ‘teach the controversy’.  In another instance, he quotes a memo from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson that phrases their agnotology strategy even more succinctly: “Doubt is our product.”

(For the avoidance of doubt (ha ha), I was aware of some of these methods, but I was unaware that the sub-discipline had a name.)

Agnotology and environmentalism

Merchants of Doubt cover

Cover of Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway (2010)

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/merchants-of-doubt-9781596916104/

In ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene’, Bonneuil and Fressoz (2017) summarise their take on agnotology as questioning how the damages of ‘progress’ are made invisible.  They adopt the word ‘anxiolytic’ from the medical lexicon to suggest that a variety of forces, many of them endemic to capitalism, serve to reduce anxiety about the natural world, and therefore stymie meaningful steps from being taken to reduce environmental damage.  For example, the authors discuss the sowing of doubt about the causes of climate change by the oil lobby and its political mouthpieces – this is also covered by Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

I appreciate this exploration, and I recommend the book to those readers who are looking for a deeply thought-provoking look at our current human-dominated era (the Anthropocene), its current context, and its precedents.

Agnotology and social progress

However, I would like to direct the armoury of agnotology towards a new front.  It remains a fascination of mine that the gains of ‘progress’ are so poorly understood and appreciated by members of the public and even by some politicians, media professionals and academics.  If this premise is accepted, then there must exist forces which lead to a state of ignorance about social progress.  And if we accept that in environmental affairs, there have been anxiolytic forces, then I contend that in social progress, there are anxiogenic – i.e. anxiety inducing – forces.

But what are these forces, and to what extent are they conscious decisions made by certain interest groups, and to what extent are they unintentional by-products of other factors?  How many are timeless and how many are contemporary?  To what extent are these forces avoidable?

I am only just beginning to collate a short list of anxiogenic forces – and I am aware that some of these suggestions are contentious, and others draw on the same themes as some of my earlier posts, such as this, but here goes.

Anxiogenic forces in the context of social progress

  • Heuristics (psychological predispositions) These include
    • Confirmation bias: We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
    • Negativity bias: We focus on negative information
    • Our susceptibility to stereotyping
    • Our inbuilt desire to imitate the majority

These are timeless, and they are difficult – but not impossible – to turn around.

  • Mass media and the internet Playing on our psychological biases, ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is just as apt online as it was when applied to the print media. Bad news sells.  The worldview of the mass media is easier to turnaround than the inbuilt biases of our psyche, but it is still a mammoth task!  Although the tabloid press is apparently in terminal decline, ‘clickbait’ articles exploit our weakness for shocking news.

Rusty radiator award screenshot

Screenshot from one of the 2014 winners of the ‘Rusty Radiator’ Award for stereotyping poverty in aid adverts

Source: https://www.radiaid.com

  • The aid sector The raison d’etre of the aid sector is to help other people, so when there have been successes, and fewer recipients are in such desperate need of aid, and when salaries depend on it, is it any wonder that social progress is not publicised as much as it could be?  How many charitable adverts come from places that have seen success stories?  The aid sector has shown itself to be malleable – viz the shift away from emerging countries such as India, and the movement to a focus on more environmental issues – but vested interests are taking a while to dissipate.  This factor links in with concerns about ‘poverty porn’ and ‘white saviours’ – which are covered in articles such as this one – and the issue of stereotyping in aid adverts is satirised at radiaid.com.  I must emphasise that this is not to say that this sector plays a significant role in promoting social progress – far from it! – but some actors in the sector surely play a role in the public’s perception that the whole world is in dire straits.  Time will tell if the aid sector can reform itself in this regard.

 

  • The education sector I argue elsewhere that much of today’s education, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, contributes towards a negatively skewed view of the world, thanks to a combination of
    • outdated information
    • lack of historical context
    • a focus on ‘exciting’ but rare events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and wars (yes, I did say rare!) over humdrum, quotidian, affairs and unpublicised, incremental gains

This is both fertile ground for further research and scope for change here.  To this end, I am working on an ‘optimistic education’ manifesto – watch this space!

  • Social media There will be more reference back to photographs, videos and posts shared on social media from years gone by – which are in the most part selected to show a ‘positive’ angle.  This will be accentuated by the fact that as people live longer (which is still the global trend, even if it is stalling in some developed countries), there is more scope for a ‘rose-tinted’ view of the past to spread.

These are just a few anxiogenic forces – and I would welcome your thoughts on others, and to what extent you think they are avoidable.

Closing thoughts

Learning the lessons of agnotology will take a while.  Using these lessons to push for a more realistic opinion of social progress – a more realistic worldview – will be an even harder task.  Of this I am no longer ignorant.

Bibliography

Bonneuil, Christophe. and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste (2017) The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso)

Grigg, Ray (2011): Agnotology – the propagation of doubt – 19 Nov 2011 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://tidechange.ca/2011/12/19/agnotology-the-propagation-of-doubt-by-ray-grigg/

Holmes, Jamie (2015) ‘The case for teaching ignorance’ – New York Times, 24 Aug 2015 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik (2010) Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury)