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Assemblies Hopeful Education Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning

Global Citizenship – an assembly

Delivered to students at Bradford Grammar School, Friday 1 Oct 2021 

Before the assembly, I put a card and a pencil on a dozen seats along the middle row of the assembly hall, saying ‘Complete the sentence: “I am a citizen of…”.’ I had also asked my Year 12 tutees to do the same the previous day. 

Slide 1 – Global Citizen symbol

I wonder if anyone recognises this logo.  Tell the person next to you if you think you know what it represents. 

Slide 2 – Images from Global Citizen Live

A week ago, there was a global series of concerts, from London to Lagos, from Seoul to Sydney, and in many other places in between.  The event was called ‘Global Citizen Live’.  

But what exactly does being a Global Citizen entail, and why do many people believe that we should develop a ‘Global Citizenship’ mindset?  

Slide 3 – Emma Raducanu

Let’s start with this young person, Emma Raducanu. 

Professor of Leadership Guido Gianasso wrote these words a couple of weeks ago about Emma: 

A new tennis champion has emerged. 

Emma’s father is Romanian. Her surname is Romanian and she speaks Romanian fluently. Hence she is considered Romanian by millions of Romanians. But Emma has never lived in Romania. 
 
Emma’s mother is Chinese. She speaks fluent Chinese. Hence she is considered a Chinese hero by millions of Chinese. 

Emma was born in Canada but has lived most of her life and trained in the UK.  She holds dual British and Canadian citizenship.  She is considered British by most Britons.  But the British public that now celebrates her success is the same that voted Brexit with the objective to make it difficult for East Europeans such as Emma and her father to live in the UK. 

 At a time when many countries are going back to very ethnocentric models and policies, Emma is the best evidence that … we must embrace a geocentric mindset.  Emma Raducanu represents the future of humankind. 

A geocentric mindset?  What does that mean?  I am more familiar with another way of putting it.  Global citizenship.

A global citizen is someone who is aware of, and seeks to understand, the wider world. They have responsibilities to the world as a whole, as well as to their community or country. 

Slide 4 –  “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”Theresa May 

Global citizenship can sound woolly, and indeed our last prime minister, Theresa May, said in 2016 “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.  Some people can see where she’s coming from: if you identify as a ‘global citizen’, they might say, you are abandoning any commitment to more local forms of identity.  

Slide 5 – England fans, showing allegiances to local clubs as well as to their country 

But are these England supporters any less loyal to their local club? The names on their flags seem to show otherwise.

Slide 6 – British Lions rugby players 

And are these British Lions any less loyal to England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland, even though they are playing for a bigger entity?

Slide 7 – BGS school logo

Which groups do you belong to? 

I put cards on some of your seats in the central aisle.  I also asked my Year 12 form members.  I asked recipients to finish the sentence “I am a citizen of…”  Here are some responses: [read out responses] 

[Of the twelve cards which Year 7-9 students had, one said the school, some said their home town, a couple said Yorkshire, some said England or Britain, and one said Earth. My Year 12 form gave a similar spread of answers.]

All of these responses are valid. How can that be?

Slide 8 – The World

Because we can live with more than one identity. 

Yuval Noah Harari points out that some fanatical creeds reduce people to single identities – e.g. fascism prioritises national identity over all others.  But you can be a patriot without denying others their identity. 

He also points out that “Human tribes… tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups… in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. … In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation”.

Harari points out that people still have different religions and national identities.  But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital or a bomb, or how to measure things like time – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.

Slide 9 – Globalisation cartoon (source)

So if we agree with Harari that we already belong to the same civilisation, why do some people – like me – feel the need to promote global citizenship? 

Well, yes, we already live in a cosmopolitan – or globally shared – condition.  It’s inescapable. 

But as Ulrich Beck pointed out, as a society, we have yet to develop anything like the cosmopolitan awareness necessary for society and the environment to thrive or to operate sustainably. 

In other words, we live a globalised life, but we have yet to take full responsibility for our role in it. 

We too often stick to old allegiances at the expense of other people and the environment.  Let’s look at two examples. 

Slide 10 – Example 1: Covid-19 Vaccinations 

In 2020, the developed nations promised to help less developed countries to vaccinate their populations.  Gordon Brown, another ex-prime minister, insists that ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’.  It would cost about £70bn to vaccinate the world – a lot of money.  But the cost of not vaccinating the world, in terms of lost productivity, trade, livelihoods, and so on, is estimated to be 50 times bigger, at £3.3tn.  But national self-interest and some degree of corporate self-interest keeps the world from the much cheaper global solution.  

Slide 11 – Example 2: Climate change 

In 2009, the developed world, who industrialised and prospered on the back of a fossil fuel led economy, agreed to pay $100bn a year to developing countries to help them to adapt to a changing climate and to invest in alternative energy sources to help them not commit as much environmental damage as we did.  But very little of this has been handed over.  And again, the cost of meeting the challenge of climate change is much, much less than the social and economic cost of suffering its consequences. 

These are massive global issues requiring huge shifts in our mindset.  And you might be thinking they are beyond you.  

Slide 12 – Recognise, Co-operate, Contemplate

But as you make your way in the world you can be part of this shift in our collective mindset. 

What could you do now though? 

Firstly, you could recognise that on top of your more local identities, you are a citizen of the world. 

But is that enough?  No, because I would argue that truly belong to a group entails responsibilities to that group. 

Slide 13 – Nichola Raihani

So the second action you could take is to co-operate beyond your immediate circle.  Nichola Raihani has written about co-operation in the animal and human world.  It’s not a silver bullet to solve all ills, but it’s underappreciated.   She points out that many people are misled by the word ‘selfish’ in the idea of the ‘selfish gene’: in most contexts, the best way to survive and thrive as an individual – to advance your ‘self’ – is to co-operate.  

Slide 14 – Recognise, Co-operate, Contemplate – and act? 

Thirdly, you could use your intellect to widen your horizons and find out more about the steps we’ll need to change our ways to deal with the global challenges of the 21st century, and you may then decide it’s time to act. 

Not only should we ‘think global, act local’, but we should also ‘think global, act global’.   

Slide 15 – There is No Planet B

Let me finish with Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There is No Planet B’: 

He says “If our sense of ‘tribe’ doesn’t embrace the whole world, we are going to be in for a very nasty time.  … All of us need to be able to keep in mind our shared and overarching global tribe.  We have to get our heads and hearts around the idea that we are in this together because that is the only way any of us can live well.” 

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Slide 16 – Global Citizen symbol

Thank you.

[ For a copy of the slides and the scriptContact me on Twitter at @DavidAlcock1, @HopefulEd, or email me – alcock_david AT hotmail.com.

As ever, feedback is welcome. I recognise that there are different conceptions of global citizenship and that cosmopolitanism is a complex beast; I have also necessarily simplified the messages of the people mentioned!]

Categories
Geography Hopeful Education Optimism and progress

The transition must start now

First published in the Yorkshire Post, 3 August 2021 under the title ‘Climate fight; how we can all play a part’

There are many ways we can transition to a more sustainable future (source)

Realising that we need to make changes to the way we live is hard to accept on a personal level.  It’s even harder on an organisational one, and it seems nigh-on impossible on a global scale.

But sometimes we need to change, and the current decade is one such time.  Our climate is in a state of flux, ecosystems are struggling, and people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to these pressures.  The scientific consensus on climate change is settled.  There is no place for denialism.  It is psychologically tough for us – residents of a wealthy and temperate country – to accept that our actions are causing so much damage, through incremental and invisible processes that mostly occur in far off places, to other people.  But we must accept it.  This is no time for ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

The need to change

However, I believe that we can accept the need to change, and that we can collectively make such changes.  History shows that with a mixture of individual and organisational action, technological innovation and political leadership and regulation, humanity can combat environmental threats.  Acid rain?  Lead in petrol?  CFCs and their damage to the ozone layer?  Smog in our biggest cities?  Threats to the Antarctic?  We accepted the evidence, we raised awareness, we campaigned, we acted, we collaborated, we innovated, and we legislated.  We can do it again in the case of the climate emergency.

But this time, the challenge is global, and it is much more deeply ingrained into our way of life.  It is potentially so overwhelming that it has led to denial by some, to helplessness and eco-anxiety in others, and to many of us, it has led to procrastination.

A period of slowdown

We should not despair.  As geographer Danny Dorling has written, the world is already entering a period of slowdown in many respects.  We are coming to the end of the period of most rapid globalisation, the end of a period of pursuing economic growth at all costs, and, thanks to an all-time low global average fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman (and falling), we are on trend to reach a peak population of less than 11 billion by 2100.  But to reach the most important slowdown of all – that of greenhouse gas emissions – we all need to play our part.

We have changed our way of life before.  Consider the ban on smoking inside pubs, which was accepted as a way of life until just fifteen years ago, and laws about seatbelts, incandescent lightbulbs, and the adoption of facemasks in indoor and close-contact settings.  At the time, these felt threatening or disruptive to many people, but in retrospect we came to accept these changes, and indeed we scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we didn’t change our ways earlier.

Embracing ‘transition’

However, rapid change can be discombobulating, and it can turn us off the need to make any adjustments at all.  So, it is time to embrace the word ‘transition’, to allow us to adjust our lives in an orderly and unthreatening way.

But we need to start the transition now.  As the UK gears up to host the COP26 climate change conference in November, individuals, organisations, and governments need to make significant changes in the way we live in the next decade, as the first part of a process that will take the world to ‘net zero’ by 2050.

The importance of smaller steps - 9GAG
The importance of smaller steps (source)

What might this mean for individuals?  One of the key drivers of climate change is a meat- and dairy-rich diet.  Of course, we could go ‘cold turkey’ (excuse the pun) by going vegan, but a gradual reduction in consumption of animal-based products would be more acceptable to more of us.  Having meat-free Mondays in school canteens may be one way of achieving this in an organisational setting.

Stopping driving cars with combustion engines is another way to move to net zero, but it can be an overwhelming change in our habits.  Cycling or taking public transport once a week can be a great way to start.  Governments and organisations can also do more, by introducing more subsidies for electric bikes and cars, and public transport.  I could go on and consider the necessary transitions in terms of housing, industry, energy, and so on.

There is No Planet B

Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There is No Planet B’, places great store in the need to slow down, consider our habits, and “spend more time working up visions of futures that we’d want and which are realistic enough to be exciting”.  So, thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – will also make us shift towards a more sustainable world. 

Recognising psychological barriers to change, and promoting the idea of transition, will give us a reasonable chance of meeting the goal of a sustainable future for our planet.  Looking back from 2030, we will wonder why we didn’t start the transition earlier. 

Postscript, 20 Sept 2021

I welcome all reasonable engagement with my writing. Some online response to this article (on Twitter) was supportive but some – from Paul Turner – was more critical. One part of Paul’s critique was that we need to transition faster than the article seemed to suggest, and I agree with this, but I wrote it for a broad readership, including people who may have not made many (or any) steps towards fighting the climate crisis. Governments and key corporate decision-makers need to have a more strident message rammed home.

Paul also critiqued my reference to the combatting of environmental threats, saying that “the examples of ‘successes’ aren’t [successes]”; however, I responded that I was careful to say that the problems weren’t ‘solved’ but were being ‘combatted’.

I agreed with Paul when he said that “a lack of understanding of the urgency and severity as well as just how simple and close the solutions are means society isn’t shifting as fast as it needs to” and I stressed that my article was meant to promote action and hope: once journeys towards a sustainable future begin, I hope they’ll gather momentum.

Excuse the immodesty, but I quite liked this sentence: “Thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – should make us shift towards a more sustainable world”. However, I wonder whether placing it at the start rather than towards the end of the piece might have set the general reader off in a more philosophical mood, allowing them to consider the reasons behind making the fundamental lifestyle changes which climate activists believe are necessary.

But overall, I am happy with the piece, and I implore as many writers, teachers and other people who deal with ideas to keep the topic of climate change alive in the public’s consciousness – not just from the point of view of bottom-up behaviour change, but also to nudge them to ‘pass it on’, and to create a groundswell for governmental and organisational action too.

Further feedback is, of course, welcome!

Categories
Hopeful Education Optimism and progress Uncategorized

Hopeful Education

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is young-people-hope-luke-ellis-craven.jpg
Luke Ellis-Craven, Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/_tfFjSyIUZY

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” – David Orr

How should we respond when young people express their worries about the future of the world to us? There is, of course, a need to listen, empathise, and support. But what if the education system can do more than that? What if we can instill hope – active hope – so that our young people can be more confident about the future?

Hopeful Education aims to do just that, by encouraging young people to understand progress, believe in humanity, and help to create a better world. Let’s look at Hopeful Education’s take on these strands.

Progress is a complex notion, but in terms of Hopeful Education, it will be understood as collective social improvement in spheres such as health, education, cooperation, democracy, and prosperity.  Global improvements in all these areas have been recorded in the modern era, with a marked acceleration since 1950, but they are under-appreciated.  Highlighting such improvements often leads to disbelief, warnings of complacency, accusations of naivety, and even accusations of conspiracy with ‘the establishment’.  Some commentators believe that publicising and celebrating progress strengthens the status quo, therefore stifling future progress.  These concerns should be recognised and interrogated, but they should not stifle the public’s understanding of progress.  Hopeful Education encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.

Belief in humanity has been under increasing threat in recent decades.  Humans are social animals, who have thrived largely because they have learned to co-operate, trust, communicate and co-exist with each other.  These qualities are still evident in abundance, but they are under-appreciated and are being eroded by polarising and divisive political and media discourse, both deliberate and subconscious.  Blaming others, accentuating differences rather than similarities, and an over-representation of the negative side of human nature in media output (including social media) has led to a growing mistrust in human nature.  Hopeful Education seeks to reaffirm the potential of human nature to work collectively for the common good, whether that be in the classroom, inter-generationally, locally, nationally, or in the context of global governance and co-operation.

Striving for a better world can, at first glance, be accepted as a given for pretty much everyone in any society, although debate remains as to what constitutes ‘better’, and whether the scope should be restricted to humanity or expanded to cover the whole biosphere.  But – especially for children – admitting that one should strive for a better world can come across as self-evident or cliched at best, and crass or indicative of weakness at worst.  Striving for a better world is also under threat from both a resurgent nationalism and populism, and from a political focus on the economy over the environment or social wellbeing.  It also has a reputation, fostered by some social commentators and politicians, for being vague, hair-shirted, and anti-progress.  Hopeful Education champions and facilitates futures thinking and education for sustainable development, taking these crucibles beyond their current homes in citizenship and geography into the broader educational sphere.

Hopeful Education seeks to understand the reasons for nihilism, mistrust, and complacency, but as an avowedly positive movement it seeks to weaken their influence.

A syncretic approach

The three strands of Hopeful Education are not new, but their combination into a coherent educational movement is novel and potentially powerful.  Hopeful Education has been informed by a variety of influences, both from within and beyond the world of education.  This syncretic approach has its strengths, as it brings together, and builds upon, ideas which may have never been combined in this way before.  However, as Hopeful Education develops, inconsistencies, contradictions and gaps will emerge, and it will prompt a myriad of philosophical questions.  These should be viewed as strengths, a source of vibrancy, and a basis for deliberation, rather than as weaknesses.

A new type of hope

Names are powerful, and the choice of the name Hopeful Education was a long journey.  The author used alternative titles such Optimistic Education in some of his writings in 2018-2020, reflecting his personal worldview.  But this was felt to be too prescriptive, and its apparent complacency put it in danger of overshadowing the significant problems and threats faced by humanity and the planet.  Other names were also considered – see this blog post for more on this.  The author is fully aware of the body of educational literature based around the ‘pedagogy of hope’, inspired by Paolo Freire’s 1992 book of that title (republished in 2004), and including more recent additions such as ‘Educating for Hope’ by David Hicks (2014).  Hopeful Education shares some of the philosophy of the pedagogy of hope, for instance the belief that inequality and injustice should be challenged, that educating for hope should be interdisciplinary, and that it is a collective pursuit.  However, it differs in that many writers on the pedagogy of hope seem to overlook or dismiss the gains made by humankind in recent decades.  There is also sometimes, ironically, a sceptical view of human nature, and the language used in some of the output could be accused of fostering anxiety.  As the Hopeful Education movement develops, the author looks forward to engaging with adherents of a pedagogy of hope, and he trusts that his use of the root word ‘hope’ will be taken as a homage rather as a co-option or dilution of a ‘pedagogy of hope’.

Hope, progress and optimism

Hopeful Education chimes with the claims of the one of the key proponents of the pedagogy of hope – David Orr – who wrote that “Realistic hope… requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions” (Orr, 2009: 185).  Elsewhere, Orr has opined that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Orr, 2008) – which sits comfortably with Hopeful Education – but in the very next sentence he goes on to show why at least his conception of a pedagogy of hope diverges from that of Hopeful Education: “I don’t know any reason to be optimistic now, or to predict great success for the human species” (ibid).  Whilst Hopeful Education recognises environmental and social challenges, Orr’s bleak statement is in opposition to the first strand of Hopeful Education: it encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.

Vision 2050: the fruits of Hopeful Education

What would the world look like in 2050 if its citizens had undertaken a Hopeful Education?

  • People would be able to make more reasoned judgements and action, leading to more effective individual, corporate, and government decision-making
  • People would be less fearful and stressful, resulting in a better place in which to live and to foster future generations, measured by wellbeing and health metrics
  • People would be more emboldened to take action to resolve the remaining challenges, secure in knowledge that other challenges have been overcome: “When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better” (Rosling et al, 2018, Factfulness)
  • People would have more chance to examine, and act on, local issues, as they will have contextualised global trends

In the spirit of openness, it is worth considering some of the challenges which a realisation of this vision might bring: one is that such a world might be more complacent (leading to a reduction in efforts towards realising a better world), and another is that it might become more parochial.  Also, one of the assumptions behind this vision is that the world will have experienced a continuation of the current trends in terms of human development – which is possible, but not certain, to occur.

The project begins

Achieving such a worldview will take a monumental, long-term, and multi-pronged approach.  Education will play a crucial role.   It has the power to instil hope comprehensively, and at a time of life when opinions and critical thinking are being formed.  It will not be able to succeed alone: some ideas for how a hopeful worldview might be possible outside of the world of formal education will be given due consideration, and it will be important to bear these in mind when cohesive strategies are being developed.  But Hopeful Education is where this project begins.

In my next post I will offer some ideas as to how Hopeful Education could be enacted. In the meantime, please do contact me in the comments below or via @DavidAlcock1 on Twitter. Thank you.

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